What a difference a day makes.
One night after shooting just 33% from the field in a loss to France, Lithuania looked like a new team by shooting 62% for the game en route to an 89-78 win over Russia. The victory automatically qualifies Lithuania for FIBA World Championship 2006 in Japan - their first appearance in the competition since 1998.
"It was very important for us to get to the World Championship," said veteran forward Mindaugas Zukauskas. "Basketball is religion in Lithuania."
For the second consecutive day, Russia blew a double-digit lead and as a result will not receive one of the automatic berths for Japan that go to the top six teams at EuroBasket. Instead, they must hope to secure a wild-card in order to play with the world´s best in 2006.
This afternoon, the task of winning was more difficult for Russia as they had to go without their top-scorer Andrei Kirilenko, who broke his nose in the game against Greece last night. Entering today´s play, Kirilenko was sixth in EuroBasket scoring with 17.5 a game and is one of the most dominating defensive players in the competition.
Lithuania opened the first quarter by shooting 10-of-16 from the floor and led 23-21, a stark contrast to their 16-point first half performance in last night´s loss.
But the Russians opened the second quarter on a 12-0 run thanks to three-pointers by Zackhar Pashutin, his fifth of the half, Victor Khryapa and Peter Samoylenko to take a 12-point lead. Lithuania outscored Russia 11-5 to close the first half and went into the locker room trailing 44-38.
The trend continued for Lithuania at the outset of third quarter as they went on a 19-7 run to re-claim the lead. Russia responded by scoring the final seven points to end the third quarter with a one-point advantage.
Ramunas Siskauskas, limited to just two points against France, hit a pair of three-pointers in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter as Lithuania re-took the lead. Paulius Jankunas, one of the stars in Lithuania´s squad which won the FIBA U-21 World Championship earlier this summer in Argentina, buried a three with 4:59 remaining in the game to put the Baltic side in front 76-67. Russia cut the lead to five on baskets by J.R. Holden and Samoylenko and had a chance to get closer, but they came up empty with their next three possessions as a result of two turnovers and a missed three-pointer.
Darjus Lavrinovic´s lay-up inside and Vidas Ginevicius´s two free throws gave the Lithuanians an 81-71 lead with 1:40 remaining in the game to seal the victory.
As the final buzzer sounded, Lithuania´s players celebrated the victory and automatic qualification for Japan. Players and coaches waved to their supporters in the crowd as they made their way off the court.
Lithuania prevailed despite an outstanding shooting performance by Pashutin, who finished with a game-high 27 points on seven of 10 shooting from three-point range. Pashutin´s point total is the sixth highest individual total in the 2005 EuroBasket.
Lithuania had a balanced scoring attack, led by Jankunas´ 19 points. Giedrius Gustas added 13, Siskauskas 12 and Darjus Lavrinovic 10.
Russia will play for seventh place and Lithuania will attempt to claim fifth on Sunday afternoon.
After disappointing defeats last night, Russia and Lithuania return to the court on Friday to play in a pivotal classification game.
The winner earns the right to play in the game for fifth and sixth place, which would still be enough to automatically qualify for the FIBA World Championship in Japan next year. A seventh or eighth place finish would mean that the teams could only qualify for the World Championship via a wild-card.
For the fourth consecutive EuroBasket, Russia will be fighting it out for 5th – 8th place following their 66-61 loss to Greece.
"It is never pleasant to be playing for 5th – 8th place," said Russian head coach Sergey Babkov.
Russia failed in a fourth quarter comeback bid for the second consecutive EuroBasket. In last night’s loss, Russia trailed Greece by eight with 7:31 remaining. They cut the lead to one point with 4:44 to go in the game, but that’s as close as they would get as Greece outscored Russia 16-12 to end the game.
In 2003, the Russians valiant comeback attempt against France was not enough. Trailing 70-55 in the second half, Russia rallied to bring the game within four points before ultimately losing 76-69.
After dominating Preliminary Round play, Lithuania struggled against France. With 16 first-half points, they were 27 points off their first half scoring average from their previous three games (43). For the game, Lithuania were two of 20 from three-point range and shot a woeful 33% overall from the floor.
"What's most important now is they we play better tomorrow," said Lithuanian forward Robertas Javtokas after the defeat. "We have to try to prepare ourselves as much as possible."
Both teams, according to their head coaches, were plagued by youth and inexperience.
"Our young players were very nervous," said Lithuanian head coach Antanas Sireika. "We just couldn't score."
"We have lots of younger players on this team and they couldn’t control their emotions," said Babkov.
Russia are led by Andrei Kirilenko, who is averaging 17.5 a game in EuroBasket. Ramunas Siskauskas leads Lithunia in scoring with 13.
Lithuania have won two of the three previous meetings against Russia in head-to-head play.