Latvia served up a strong reminder over the weekend that this year's EuroBasket is likely to be a wide-open affair by winning the Adriatic Trophy tournament in Italy.
The Baltic side recorded three straight victories over fellow EuroBasket teams Italy, Greece and Croatia.
The coach of Latvia, Karlis Muiznieks, could hardly have asked for a better tournament.
"We proved to ourselves and to others that we can successfully play against strong teams," Muiznieks said.
|Roberts Stelmahers |
"The key now is not to become overconfident."
Lithuania stole the headlines at EuroBasket 2003 as champions but had they not beaten Latvia in overtime in their opener, it might not have happened.
Latvia had a chance to win that contest at the end of regulation but missed a shot, and the Lithuanians won.
They rode the momentum to the gold medal while Latvia lost their next two games and bowed out of the tournament.
In their Adriatic Trophy opener, Latvia upset Italy, the Olympic silver medalists, 87-80.
Roberts Stelmahers was excellent, particularly in the first half when he made all three of his attempts from behind the arc.
Ivars Timermanis, Uvis Helmanis, Aigars Vitols, Kristaps Janicenoks and Kristaps Valters all hit from long range in the game.
Greece, having lost to Croatia in their opener, had plenty of incentive to beat the Latvians but lost 76-72.
Once again, Latvia's perimeter shooting put them in command early. Even though Greece fought back, and Latvia got into foul trouble, they maintained their poise and prevailed.
Ventspils' Raitis Grafs had 15 points and seven rebounds in the victory for Latvia.
After the first two wins, Muiznieks said: "We were fresh in the first game, that's why it was relatively easy.
"The second game was harder and the Greeks were more physical. Of course, it is pleasure to beat such opponents, but we should keep in mind that this is only friendly tournament.
"But what's really good is that the quality of game is improving with each game."
That improvement showed because in their last game, Latvia defeated Croatia 104-98 after double overtime to win the trophy.
As in the previous wins, Latvia's team play on both ends of the floor was excellent.
They scored a lot of points in transition to lead in the first half, and though Croatia took a four-point advantage after half-time, Latvia stayed close and forced the game to overtime.
Stelmahers scored 11 of his game-high 25 points in the decisive extra period.
Muiznieks is upbeat, but knows the true tests are ahead.
"We have to continue to improve our game individually and collectively," he said.
"Now we have to improve our offensive and defensive tactics with every game.
"Time will tell if we can improve with every game."