Jonas Valanciunas had his way with the Tall Blacks for most of the game but New Zealand kept fighting throughout to give Lithuania a scare at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Emmet Ryan reports on a game where Kiwi grit was nearly but not quite enough for the upset.
Jonas Valanciunas gave an early warning of what he was here to do, posting up with power before calmly turning inside for a dunk. The Toronto Raptors big man had come here to impose his physicality on the Tall Blacks and was in full control against a team with just three players taller than 200cm (6’7″) on their roster. New Zealand had been able to play bigger than their size throughout the group stage. proving more than capable of competing and winning on the glass. Here though they faced one of the world’s elite bigs in a knockout game and they were physically up against it. By the time Valanciunas sat for the first time, the gap was 10 points. The paucity of true point guards wasn’t hurting the Lithuanians here. New Zealand had grit and organisation, Lithuania had a Jonas. At the end of the first Lithuania led 23-9.
A string of three threes to start the third gave the Tall Blacks some life on offence but the Lithuanians were able to paw away at them. As soon as the gul got down to single digits, the big man came back to take care of business. On a put-back he stretched over BJ Anthony to score and then closed out on a three effort from the Kiwi at the other end. The Tall Blacks were being beaten in every department. Hustle had got them to this stage but they were taking on an opponent with just as powerful an engine and far more refinement in their game. Errors however saw Lithuania slack off towards the end of the half and this prevented them from really kicking for home. After two quarters, Lithuania led 36-26.
Thomas Abercrombie led a mini resurgence for the Tall Blacks to start the third. Having already lost Jonas Maciulis in the first half, Lithuania lost another 3 as Simas Jasaitis went out injured early in the third. The dept of the Lithuanian squad outside of their point guard troubles however meant this was the one position where they could take the hit. Mindaugas Kuzminskas came in the interruption to their style was minimal. It did however give the Tall Blacks some relief in the physical side of matters and it wasn’t quite as easy for Lithuania to bully their way through the paint. Still, Lithuania were able to stretch out and keep the scores coming. That early salvo in the first quarter had established the gap, a rare good start for Lithuania in this tournament, and every time New Zealand chipped away the EuroBasket runners up hit back. With 10 minutes to play, Lithuania led 58-50.
Corey Webster hit a long three to get the Tall Blacks off to the perfect start in the fourth. With the Lithuanian offence stuttering, they once again recalled Valanciunas from the bench. Every time New Zealand had made a game of it, Jonas Kazlauskas had dialled up Jonas to settle things down. The Tall Blacks however were far from done as consecutive threes from Isaac Fotu and Webster again put them into the lead. Jonas however was starting to bust holes inside, drawing fouls
and tiring New Zealand out. That pressure started to tell and Lithuania got back on top. Valancinunas had put the team on his back and a put-back from the Raptor briefly made it a two-possession game. The Tall Blacks tried to double down on Valanciunas in the post with Fotu and Mika Vukona but Valanciunas stepped back and made the short jumper. Maciulis, back in with a bandage over his eye, nailed an insurance three with 1.05 to go. Lithuania survived an heroic effort by the Tall Blacks to progress.
For all their struggles, this was be a peformance Lithuania will be pleased with. Valanciunas was immense with 22 points and 13 boards. Far more importantly, the Lithuanians had a hot start and way able to work off that when things got tough later on. For the Tall Blacks, it’s the end of the road but their thrilling approach to the game coupled with their courage means those who saw them in Bilbao and Barcelona will remember them for far more than their Haka.
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