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Whew 10 September 2013

Riding a roller coaster would be a more sedate way to spend this last week, but here we are, as expected, about to play in the next round of Eurobasket 2013.

Linas Kleiza at work

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Sure, we did it on the back of a loss which is most unsatisfying, but in the end it was enough – just.

Lithuania needed to win, or at least lose by less than 10 to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the final group match to make it to the next stage.

This was an old fashioned duel, both teams knew the score and there were no external factors influencing the final placings; it was mano-a-mano.

Kazlauskas started with another surprise, elevating Pocius to starting status after he sat out the previous game. And the move was effective as Martynas blazed his customary path to the basket snaring a couple of early team-lifting buckets.

But the BiH boys were not fazed at all, and within a few minutes were leading before Lithuania settled and brought the contest back to parity, at 18 each, by the sounding of the first term bell.

What was obvious from the start was that this was a game of passion with both sides working hard, making some mistakes, but fighting all the way.

A one point difference at half-time was all that was separating the teams, and while nerves were high on the sidelines, there was an air that we were in control of the situation and had enough in reserve to keep BiH at bay.

It was in the third quarter that the blood pressure well and truly boiled as Teletovic started to make impossible shots and BiH ended the third quarter five points ahead.

But if Teletovic’s shots were at first impossible, then the Vatican needs to confirm his later shots as miracles. There was one in particular when Teletovic moved the ball over the halfway line, looked at the ring, shuffled and skipped, and with a seven foot Lavrinovic in his face buried a three from closer to the middle than the three point line. And it was pure net.

That served to ignite the relatively sparse number of Bosnia and Herzegovina fans into rapture as quickly as it quietened their Lithuanian counterparts.

From a barrage of three pointers and a couple of fast breaks BiH were 16 up before we knew what hit us, and it was seven minutes into the final quarter. The unthinkable was actual as Lithuanian fans gasped in horror, not to mention the team itself.

Kazlauskas vainly subbed players to guard Teletovic, but the devil was on his side as every prayer he sent to the heavens ended with the referees raising their arms in unison and yelling “three”.

I don’t know if it was tactics that stopped him in the end or he just ran out of puff, but BiH finally started missing a few shots and Lithuania was able to answer a Bosnia and Herzegovina nine point run with a nine point run of our own that got us back to a deficit of only nine.

Finally the gods decided not to play favourites all night and a bit of luck went our way. This time Kleiza went to the line with the deficit still at nine. As our poor free throw performance persisted, he missed both, but we grabbed the offensive rebound, back to Kleiza, and he calmly buried a three to get us to only six down.

We ran out the game a comparatively comfortable six points adrift and shook hands with our Bosnia and Herzegovina opponents with eyes downcast as much to acknowledge their great effort as to breathe a collective sigh of relief, feeling it not quite right to celebrate too hard.

Apparently Kazlauskas asked the boys if they were prepared to pack their bags and go home late in the final quarter, and that might have been the stimulant to get them going again.

And again they dug deep and found enough to do what had to be done, and you have to give them full credit for that.

But if we keep playing like this they’ll have to play the final in the cemetery, because that’s where all the fans will be.

Of course I jest, and can only praise our boys for their stellar effort in maintaining their composure in a situation where the world and heavens were truly against them.

The crowd was baying for their blood, the BiH boys were riding high and the fans were having trouble finding their customary voice, but still they managed to turn it around and march on.

So it’s somewhat sad to see a lot of criticism in the Lithuanian press about their performance and the team in general.

We’ve seen what an unpredictable tournament this is, and the only thing certain is that nothing is certain. Russia, Turkey and FYR Macedonia are going home with only three wins between the lot of them, and then Finland, Ukraine and Belgium moving to the next round.

Sometimes we forget how much these guys give up just to play for the national team. They all have lucrative basketball contracts and playing outside of their club commitments puts not just their season in jeopardy, but potentially their whole careers.

And they give up all their summer holidays, time with family, time away from the sport, time to recoup, all cast aside to represent their country and to make us proud.

For the press to then turn around and criticise their efforts is as heartless as it is unfair. Let alone stupid.

For what the team has given us over the years we can only heap praise upon them, and we need to double our support and help them through instead of tripling the pressure already upon them with petty criticism.

As one of three million official coaches however, I do feel warranted in questioning some of the coaching.

One day Pocius on the bench all game, the next he’s a starter and playing almost 30 minutes. One day K. Lavrinovic hits 23, the  next he doesn’t even get five minutes.

Call me old school, but I reckon you need to earn your spot in the starting five, and if you lose it, it’s only because someone has come off the bench and made better of their opportunities.

These are all young, successful and highly competitive players, and I’m not sure that a rotation system has ever been particularly successful.

Sure, you can say that Kazlauskas is responding to match-ups with the opposition, but the key word here is responding.

A good team goes in and dominates and leaves others behind. If your opening salvo is a defensive match-up, then you are on the back foot from the start and sending a message of fear rather than intimidation.

But what do I know?

I do know that next round we play France, Belgium and Ukraine, in that order.

If I was in the betting business I’d say we have a pretty good draw after being set the toughest group first up.

But, like I said, the only thing that is certain is that there is uncertainty ahead. The only way we can help now is by giving our full support to our team and wishing them well instead of increasing the pressure upon them.

We’re still on the ride – let’s all hop on.

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