U18 MEN FEATURE By David Hein
Lithuania come into the U18 European Championship as defending champion. The basketball-mad nation also won the U19 FIBA World Championship earlier this month and will host EuroBasket 2011 this summer.
All that leaves the Lithuanian group at the 2011 U18 European Championship facing quite a bit of pressure of high expectations in Wroclaw.
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"Lithuania is a basketball country and everybody is watching and everybody wants us to keep the title in Lithuania," said Lithuanian captain Rokas Narkevicius, who made five of six free throws in the final 24.5 seconds to secure an 82-79 victory over Italy in Preliminary Round action.
None of Narkevicius or his teammates were on the U18 team last summer, which was headed by emerging megastar Jonas Valanciunas, who also headed the U19 title winning team.
Still, Narkevicius and company feel that pressure.
"It is pressure for us because the team one year older than us is very good with Jonas and other players. So it's pressure for us and we must keep going," said Narkevicius.
Lithuania and Valanciunas last summer crushed the U18 competition with a perfect 9-0 record and an average winning margin of 18.9 points - 23.7 points not including the three-point win over Latvia in the second group stage and the one-point semifinal victory against Serbia.
At the U19 Worlds, Lithuania lost only two of nine games - the opening game against Croatia and an overtime loss versus the United States.
"We feel a lot of pressure because everybody in Lithuania is talking about Jonas and that team. They are like heroes. We must prove ourselves that we are not bad," said Narkevicius.
Even though this is a different team, this Lithuanian generation does have a success to call upon, having collected the silver medal at the U16 European Championship in 2009.
And Lithuania guard Tomas Lekunas said knowing that eases a bit of the imperativeness the team would feel from the fans back home.
"No we don't feel pressure. They (the 1992 generation) have Jonas who is a great center. We just have a team. We just want to win. They have a lot more talent than we do," said Lekunas.
"We just play hard and that's the star of our team."