|Lithuania's golden generation clinched yet another title at Youth European Championships |
The U20 European Championship 2012 in Slovenia tipped off with the certainty that there were to be no relegation-round drama, since the Division A tournament expands to 20 teams in 2013.
As the competition progressed though, it became clear that all bets were off in the battle for the medals since there was no runaway favourite but instead a number of teams that, depending on the day, could beat anyone else.
Out of the four teams - Serbia, Russia, Spain and hosts Slovenia - that delivered their title credentials early by topping their First Round groups undefeated, only two made it to the last four of the tournament.
In the first quarter-final, Lithuania dominated Greece from start to finish to reach a 79-43 triumph with forward Edgaras Ulanovas scoring 18 points and guard Vytenis Cizauskas dishing out seven assists.
Serbia took an 18-12 lead at the end of the first quarter but the gutsy Latvians fought back to tie the scores at 29-29 at half-time, only for the Serbians to pull away in the final frame and maintain their unbeaten record intact.
Slovenia started off in convincing fashion against France to make the 6,000-strong crowd at Stozice Arena dream of an unbeaten run into the semi-finals and beyond, but the French had different plans.
Led by Leo Westermann, who had 21 points and seven assists, and Rudy Gobert who was dominant on the glass with 16 points and 12 rebounds, les Bleus stormed out of the locker room to win the third quarter 26-8 and cruised to a 77-54 victory to end the hosts' dreams.
The Germans only managed to score eight points in the first and fourth quarters and 47 in total in the game, while the Spanish winger collected 22 of his own and added 11 rebounds and his team sealed their place in the semi-finals with an impressive 73-47 win.
Serbia were the only team to reach the last four with a perfect record, only to see Lithuania end their unbeaten run. The Baltic side had five players in double-digits and once again showed a great team ethic with 20 assists, to seal a place in the final with a 73-68 victory.
France tried to open a gap right from tip-off but time and time again Spain pulled back and levelled the scores. The two teams were tied at 31-31 at the interval but it was a great defensive effort in the start of the final quarter that allowed the French to go on an 8-0 run which was enough to secure them a 66-59 victory and a shot at the title.
|It was a bittersweet evening for MVP Léo Westermann, as France missed out on the gold medal|
Serbia and Spain overcame disappointment and showed that they wanted to leave Slovenia with the bronze medal.
Lithuania, a team that had started the tournament with three losses in five games, concluded their fairytale resurrection by conquering gold.
The Baltic side surprised France by winning the first quarter 24-11 and despite the French defence closing down all lanes to allow them to score a mere 26 points in the remainder of the contest, that opening-frame lead proved enough in a low-scoring game.
Lithuania won 50-49 after Ulanovas stole the ball to deny France the opportunity to take a shot on the last possession and celebrated a title that seemed highly unlikely only a few days previously.
French point guard Leo Westermann averaged 12.6 points, 2.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game and was named MVP of the tournament.
With the U20 European Championship Division A expanding to 20 teams in 2013, all four semi-finalists of the Division B tournament in Bulgaria secured promotion by virtue of reaching the last four of the tournament.
Croatia stunned the impressive up to that point Czech Republic 88-80 in the final and claimed the gold medal.
An inspirational Domagoj Vukovic led the Croatian side with 27 points to make they would return to Division A, after just one year of absence, in style.
Ondrej Balvin of the Czech Republic averaged 13.9 points and 11.9 rebounds per game and was voted as the MVP of the tournament.
U20 Final Highlights: Lithuania v France