Russia are the 2005 ACI Trading Ltd U20 European Champions after a 61-53 defeat against Lithuania in Sunday’s final.
In a mistake-filled, tension-packed contest, it was Russia who were able to just do enough to edge their counterparts after an enthralling 40 minutes.
It was clear from the opening tip that the game would not be a classic encounter, especially between two sides that have played such tenacious defense throughout the tournament.
The atmosphere only added to the players’ nerves as over 3,000 supporters filled the Olympisky Arena to cheer on the home side.
|Renaldas Seibutis was the only Lithuanian player to offer a consistent offensive threat|
Lithuania did not seem to be effected by nervousness at the start and they scored the game’s opening 7 points to no reply from Russia.
But Russia got off the mark through consecutive three-pointers from Egor Vyaltsev and Anton Ponkrashov and then Vitaly Fridzon hit a jump shot to give them their first lead, 10-9.
It was a lead which they would retain until the final buzzer.
Although Russia remained in front, their grip on the game was not enough for them to be able to relax. Lithuania were always within striking distance, but although they tied the score on 3 separate occasions, they were unable to get their noses in front.
Lithuania had nobody but themselves to blame for the loss.
With the 210 Dmitri Sokolov on the court, Russia could not risk playing man-to-man defense and allowing Lithuania’s quicker players to draw their big guys away from the basket.
The result was a barrage of open three-point shots against Russia's zone defense. Today, however, the normally sharp-shooting Lithuanians were a woeful 5/29 from behind the arc.
Despite Lithuania’s problems, Russia were not much better on the offensive end, and they were continually unable to take advantage of their opponents’ poor shooting.
Both sides were stricken with nerves down the stretch and it became clear that in the fourth quarter, the team that could come up with 2 or 3 consecutive baskets would probably win.
Due to their poor shooting changed tactics, attacking Russia’s defense, rather than settling for the outside shot. At first the new found strategy worked, and an Arturas Jomantas jump shot reduced Russia’s lead to two points, 43-41 after 3 minutes of the final period.
But the Russians regrouped, outscoring Lithuania 8-2 and a dunk from Nikita Kurbanov re-ignited the crowd and restored their advantage, 51-43.
Nikita Shabalkin had a double-double for Russia, 12 points and 11 rebounds
Lithuania were still not down and out and when Renaldas Seibutis, a lone bright spark in the poor Lithuanian offense, hit a jump shot with 48 seconds remaining, Russia’s lead was 4 points, 54-40.
Needing a turnover, the Lithuanians put fullcourt pressure on the Russians, coming desperately close to a steal. But instead, the Rusisans turned the near-miss into a 3-on-1 fast break and Kurbanov executed the play to perfection, waiting for the covering defense to arrive before converting the lay-up with the foul.
Trailing 6 points with 40 seconds left, Lithuania were out of chances and their gold medal dreams were over.
“It was not good basketball, but I think in the final you don’t always have good basketball. You play for the result,” said Russian assistant coach Andrey Maltsev
Today we played good defense, but not good offense. But the crowd helped us and the guys won.”
Today Russia was the better team. We do not have stars, the team is the star and they showed that today,” he added.
Lithuanian Head Coach Rimas Kurtinaitis acknowledged that it was his side’s poor shooting which cost them the chance for victory.
“Again we had problems like in the last game, we missed a lot of 3-point shots and free throws.
Maybe we were tired a little bit mentally. Maybe they (the players) were thinking too much about results, about medals, but it’s not their physical condition,” he said in explanation of his side’s poor finish to the competition after an excellent start.
But in spite of the defeat, Kurtinaitis remained upbeat.
“This is the first step in the future for these players in basketball, so sometimes you need to learn from mistakes like today. We are a small country, we are a basketball country, we are at the top of Europe so I’m happy,” he said.
Anton Ponkrashov was the steadiest Russian performer on the day, leading the team with 13 points and making 3/5 thee-pointers. Nikita Shabalkin added 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Seibutis was the only consistent threat for Lithuania and he finished the game with 17 points, albeit on 7/8 shooting.