Lithuania is back on track with a win over our Latvian brothers. You’ll notice I never said easy, in fact the correct adjective would more accurately be tough, and a lot harder than the 8 point margin suggests.
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Latvia had nothing to lose. A team always known for its physical play, this year they have some extra talent to throw into the mix, so it was no great surprise to see them above Lithuania in the Group B standings before the start of this third round match.
And the Latvians started well. Knowing they had to be brave they shot confidently and got to double digits first.
Blums hit a couple of early treys to help the cause, but Latvian stocks took a bit of a dive when starting centre Martins Meiers picked up his third foul in the first quarter.
Kleiza started the game, which was a good sign after having limited minutes in the previous match and was looking more productive, though there were still a few ill-advised shots early in some of the offences. Generally however, he seemed much more intent on making his way closer to the rim.
Motiejūnas continues to improve and was again showing enviable desire and commitment at both ends of the court. The tandem with Valančiūnas is also starting to reap dividends as the pair combined for 20 points and 16 rebounds.
Kalnietis, our most consistent player, continues to control the ball and drive to the bucket as part of his massive workload, and the only thing you can vaguely criticise is that he doesn’t have the assist instinct evident in a pure point guard.
There was a bit of a scare in the first quarter when the equally overworked Seibutis was escorted back to the locker-room by the team doctors. Renaldas collected a deep gash on his eyebrow as a Latvian souvenir during a defensive encounter.
He returned later in the match, hitting a couple of important free throws, and it seems we are just dealing with a gash and a bit of a headache instead of anything more serious like a concussion.
Generally the team rotated well and held Latvia at arm’s length for the first three quarters, maintaining around a 10 point gap, if not comfortably, then at least consistently.
All that changed of course in the final quarter. A few shots falling for the Latvians, a couple of misses on our part, and the scores were tied half way through the final stanza.
The out-numbered but vocal Latvian supporters were back in the game and a few minutes of anxious exchanges ensued as both teams looked to find a match-winning break.
In the end it was more a war of attrition as Lithuania systematically broke the back of Latvian resistance with some cool foul shooting, solid defence and some timely buckets. By the time the final siren sounded it was an 8 point win, just as much the result of the gut wrenching loss to our northerly neighbours back in 2001 that taught us never to take the burgundy and white lightly.
With a very even scoring spread Valančiūnas led the Lithuanian point tally with 11, and every player who got on court got into the points column except for Počius who this year has traded his explosive energy off the bench for intense defence. In fact the most pleasing aspect of the game might be that we had six other players scoring between 7 and 9, making us a very hard team to defend.
For the Latvians Rihards Kuksiks was best on the night with 13.
The team continues to improve and now, somewhat surprisingly, we find ourselves topping Group B after Serbia’s shock loss to Macedonia. The Serbs might be showing signs of struggling with a seven player rotation.
So the tournament of surprises continues, with all favourites having been bought down to earth there is an overriding air of mystery surrounding the outcome.
My feeling is that this won’t be a pretty tournament and the winner will be the team with the strongest purpose and desire; the ones prepared to get down and dirty. Let’s hope it’s our lads.
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