by Kevin Anselmo
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.