It was tense, it was tight, and it was surprisingly clean, as Lithuania eventually pulled through with a 73-61 win over Turkey to book their spot in the semi-finals of the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, writes Emmet Ryan.
Omer Asik vs Jonas Valanciunas was the battle we wanted to see and it quickly turned into the focal point of the first quarter. Valanciunas made an early put-back but Asik responded with a bounce-pass inside to set up a Kerem Gonlum dunk. Asik was defending the Lithuanian big well in the low post, not allowing the easy scores the Toronto Raptor was able to make with pure brute force against New Zealand on Sunday. Valanciunas however is maturing as a player. When his support on the perimeter failed, he found other ways to attack the Turks, getting open for a 12 footer and then blindsiding Asik for a put-back.
Offensively however it was Turkey who brought more diversity. Emir Preldzic, the hero of Sunday’s great escape against Australia, made his first three shots before a flying dunk by Sinan Guler forced Jonas Kazlauskas to call a timeout. Donatas Montiejunas and Renaldas Seibutis steadied the ship but the Turks remained terriers on D. Asik blocked Valanciunas when Lithuania looked to him again and then breezed through Darjus Lavrinovic for a lay-up. At the end of the first, Turkey held the lead 18-13.
The ugly shooting that stunted Lithuania in the first, capped off by a bizarre off-target floater by Kristof Lavrinovic, eased off and a string of threes put them back in front midway through the frame. For a battle where physicality was playing such a big role, it was a remarkable clean with the first free throws of the game coming with 4.20 left in the second. Valanciunas and Asik, re-entered the fray. The scoring was relatively low but the quality of play was the highest so far on this side of the draw. Both combatants showed tremendous respect for their respective strengths and looked to find holes to attack soft spots. Gonlum saw plenty of the ball to go up against Montiejunas while Lithuania tried to force Turkey to over-commit on the inside to free up their perimeter attack. It was thought out, patient, and not the sexiest basketball but compelling nonetheless. At the half, Lithuania held a 33-28 lead in a good one.
For all of Turkey’s confidence of competing with Lithuania inside, Valanciunas and company had made their size count, takinga 21-13 rebounding advantage into the second half. Turkey looked to the perimeter for support and Ender Arslan made a three to force and early timeout from Kazlauskas. The Valanciunas and Asik battle got a touch more heated, the Lithuanian big fouled and protested too much. That got him T-ed up and Turkey had taken as psychological advantage as the Raptor sat to cool off.
As the Turks pushed in front on the scoreboard, Seibutis once again steadied Lithuania’s nerves from deep. Turkey however were eating into Lithuania’s edge on the glass and the game was balanced at both ends. The deep game for Lithuania was proving a bigger factor now, Martynas Pocius made their ninth of the day to re-take the lead, with Lithuania 47-44 up with 10 minutes to play.
A long jumper from Seibutis eventually rolled in as Lithuania made it a two-possession game to start the final frame. This Turkish team was well used to coming back and Lithuania was trying to up the pressure. Jonas Maciulis shot and missed his team’s first free throw of the night as the lead grew to 7. The threes kept coming, Seibutis again but Gonlum was keeping Turkey alive on the inside. Valanciunas was continuing to grow in the game, working hard at both ends to stall a potential Turkish revival. The scores kept coming, with Maciulis stepping up to put Lithuania on top when it counted.
Neither side can have any complaints out of this one. Both went in with solid strategies, and executed well. Valanciunas and Asik came out roughly even from their personal battle, with both recording double doubles, and it was eventually decided by what was around them. Lithuania made the threes they needed more often that Turkey’s secondary bigs hurt Lithuania and that fundamentally proved the difference in this one.