Lithuania reached their first ever U18 European Championship for Women final by beating France 68-45 in their semi-final to set up a showdown with Russia on Sunday.
The Lithuanians extended their unbeaten run in the tournament (7-0) and are now just one win away from claiming their maiden title at this level since the country became the first Soviet state to declare its
independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
|Tatiana Petrushina had all the answers for Russia against France on Saturday.|
And that bit of possible history in the making is not wasted on the fans or the players themselves. They have already been acclaimed as heroes for coming this far and have all the necessary motivation to take that final step.
Ramune Kumpiene's girls come into Sunday's decider in impressive fashion. They jumped out to a 20-3 lead against France and were rarely threatened as they played some of the best defense seen in this tournament. The French failed to score a basket - they got all three of their points in the opening period on free-throws - in the game's first 13 minutes and had only four made field goals (out of 30 attempts) at the break.
Things did improve somewhat for France in the second half, but they had too much ground to make up in too little time and Lithuania didn't take their foot off the gas as they cruised to victory.
Guard Aurime Rinkeviciute was one of four players reaching double figures in scoring with 22 points to which she added nine rebounds and four assists. The interior pair of Giedre Paugaite and Egle Siksniute combined for 29 points, 17 rebounds, seven steals and six blocks.
And each of those players - along with Marina Solopova who had a fine all-around effort with 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists - will have to put on similar performances against a Russian side which has gone from strength to strength since dropping their first and only game of the tournament against Sweden on Tuesday.
One uncharacteristic statistic for Lithuania in their win over France was their mediocre free-throw shooting (11 for 21). They had been one of the most consistent teams from the charity stripe up until that performance and must not waste those points.
The Russians reached their first final of this tournament since 2004 thanks to a nail-biting 62-60 win over the Czech Republic.
Tatiana Petrushina made four clutch free-throws in the last 1:06 of the game to put her team back in the lead as they held off a fierce Czech side.
The Russians rarely trailed and were up by as many as nine, 17-8, in the first quarter. But the stubborn Czechs fought their way back from a 35-28 half-time deficit to go up two, 37-35, in the third period.
The game went down to the wire as the teams traded the lead for the better part of the fourth quarter and Russia were on the back foot when Renata Brezinova hit a three-pointer to put the Czech Republic up 60-58 with just over two minutes left in the game.
But Petrushina answered the call in crunch time on her way to a team-high 16 points to which she added eight rebounds. Alexandra Tarasova had 16 points and 11 rebounds and substitute Anastasia Loginova had a solid game with 11 points and nine rebounds, playing major minutes as Anastasia Logunova was limited by foul trouble.
The Russians completely overwhelmed the Czechs on the boards (57 to 41) and must keep that up against Lithuania. In addition, they might have to play young 2.03m centre Liubov Paskalenko quite a bit more than usual if they are to make points in the paint hard to come by for the tall Lithuanians.
Russia must also improve their own free-throw shooting (19 for 30 on Saturday) and take better care of the ball (24 turnovers) while better individual performances are expected and needed from Logunova and Anastsiya Shilova.