In arguably his best single game performance as a head coach, Sergio Scariolo overcame the odds and showed that, with him on the bench, it’s a fool that counts Spain out as his side overcame Lithuania in an overtime thriller.
It has been a long time since Lithuania beat Spain in a game that really mattered. There had been friendly wins in the run up to this tournament but in recent times, when there was something at stake, if Lithuania played Spain the day ended poorly for the former.
Spain have been, since I still had brown hair and didn’t know what a smartphone was, the standard bearers on the continent. This century alone they’ve got 3 EuroBasket titles, 2 World Cup titles, and a heavy collection of Olympic medals. If Spain don’t win it all, they tend to come awfully close to it.
This Spain however is meant to be one in transition. There’s no Ricky Rubio, both Pau and Marc Gasol are gone, Jose Calderon is a distant memory, Juan Carlos Navarro seems that way too, and Rudy Fernandez is the only part of that version of Spain, the one that tormented a continent for the best part of two decades, that remains. This new transitional version, Willy and Juancho Hernangomez, Usman Garuba, and the rest has to work to rebuild the fear that came whenever another national side saw red and yellow.
Of course, there’s one other piece from that golden era. Sergio Scariolo, he’s been the man on the sideline for Spain through its brightest days and he came to Berlin with a plan that was ready to break Lithuanian hearts once more.
Lithuania, it has far fewer accolades in recent times to talk to but basketball is religion there like nowhere else on the planet not even Philippines. Its population may be small but its expectations are great. It is to basketball what Uruguay is to football and the support was here in Berlin to show it.
The first quarter was cagey, with a Lukas Lekavicius three enough to give Lithuania the edge by the minimum after 10 minutes and capping off a 7 point frame for him. There were shades of Spain past in the style shown by the young guns looking to get them over the line here. Alberto Diaz had the aggression of a younger Rudy, Dario Brizuela had the the confidence of Sergio ‘Chacho’ Rodriguez, while Joel Parra was carrying himself like some sort of cross between Alex Mumbru and Felipe Reyes. The Spanish basketball school offers a broad education.
Lithuania were forced into a strategic switch in the second quarter as Jonas Valanciunas got into early foul trouble but it worked to their advantage as Domantas Sabonis led a smaller and faster line-up that befuddled the Spanish with Marius Grigonis and Mindaugas Kuzminskas running freely into space. It saw Lithuania come back from down 6 at one stage in the quarter to lead by as much as 7, with the change in tempo heavily responsible. As it was, LTU had the edge at the break 45-40.BallinEurope is ramping up its YouTube game this season. Subscribe to our channel now for player exclusives, analysis videos, and much more.
Basketball is tied deeply to Lithuania’s history and life there. In Kaunas, they have one of the most incredible arenas in Europe to host local side Zalgiris. The sport is the nation’s greatest opportunity to express itself on the world stage, to show why people should care about this small republic on the Baltic Sea.
The hope of Lithuania’s people rests on the 12 men that wear this jersey like it does for no other nation in basketball. From that bronze in Barcelona through their triumph at EuroBasket 2003, their first since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, and many other dreamy days. They can point to being the only former Soviet state to have won EuroBasket before and after the era of the USSR, and that 2003 win meant far more to the people of this nation than any medals won when they effectively made up the bulk of the old Soviet rosters.
At this competition, they were dark horse contenders going in only to end up needing a favour from France, whose win over Bosnia & Herzegovina, kept them alive. This was effectively Lithuania’s third straight elimination game and you could see that they had been steeled for the knockout rounds more than their oppoents.BallinEurope has a book, a real life actual book called I Like it Loud, and you can buy it on Amazon now. It’s here as a book and here in Kindle form.
A three by Kuzminskas brought Lithuania their first double digit lead of the night and sent the 2,000 or so travelling fans into raptures. Sabonis is, of course, the son of Lithuania’s most beloved and arguably greatest player of all time. He’s awfully different stylistcally to his dad, Arvydas, and he carries the pressure of the name well. This was an efficiency heavy display by him. The scores came when he wanted them to but he was far more interested in ensuring the overall team workrate was high.
Yet there was that old Spain coming back to hurt them and crush dreams again. A three from Rudy cut it to a single possession game late in the third. As it was, the third ended with the gap unchanged from halftime. Scariolo would not let Lithuania run away from him as he leaned on Lorenzo Brown to keep things close.
As the game entered its denouement the Lithuanian fans, who had been far from shy with their cheers all night sounded that touch more nervous. The lead was up to 8 in the final 5 minutes, not enormous by any stretch but still it was hard to shake those doubts. When Willy Hernangomez cut the deficit to the minimum a couple of minutes later, the nerves of those who had travelled must have been shot.
Then it got really reminiscent of nightmares past. Sabonis went 1 of 2 from the line, Brown scored on the next possesion to tie things up. Xabi Lopez-Arostegui put the Spanish in fron on the next and the calamity was unfolding. The disaster was avoided on the buzzer as Ignas Brazdeikis forced overtime with a tip-in but Scariolo could taste blood in the water and he took the stabilisers off Brown.
With the Maccabi Tel Aviv guard starting things off in stunning style, Spain forced Lithuania to try and chase them and Scariolo’s teams always feel comfortable making an opponent come after them. The decisive moment came when Brown, who had just hit two free throws off an unsportsmanlike foul, slipped to the baseline and fed Willy Hernangomez to remove all doubt.
There’s no medal for this game for Scariolo to add to his collection but it’s right up there in his achievements. Spain advance to the last 8, for the 21st straight EuroBasket.