By Yarone Arbel
For the first time since 1993 Russia is in the EuroBasket finals, and will get a shot to win the title for the first time since 1985, back when it was still known as the USSR.
Russia shocked favorites Lithuania on Saturday night in the Palacio de Deportes as David Blatt led a brilliant group who took control of the game from the tip and never trailed, but on top of it showed great character.
Lithuania, coming to this game unbeatable in EuroBasket 2007, chased after the Russian
side from the first moment.
|J.R. Holden had 18 points and six rebounds in Russia's improbable win.|
They made a heroic comeback from minus 19 to a tied game, but Russia didn't blink for a second.
Andrei Kirilenko, in an amazing individual performance of 29 points and eight rebounds, carried his team to a big win, and didn't allow anybody to take this win from his team.
"It was a very physical game, but we played great defense," he said after the buzzer.
"Our goal coming to this EuroBakset was to reach the Olympics. We've done that and now we're aiming at the finals. If we play as we did tonight, nobody can count us out."
Ramunas Siskauskas was the only one who stepped up for Lithuania.
He scored 30 points, including five shots from long range, which cut into Russia's lead time after time, but couldn't secure the win alone.
Russia played 40 minutes of very aggressive defense and didn't allow any Lithuanian to get anywhere close to the rim without being hammered down.
The bad side was that with six minutes on the clock Russia had three big men in big foul trouble – Morgunov, Khryapa and Savrasenko had four fouls each, but eventually none fouled out.
The good side was Lithuania's front line was out of the game.
Darius Songaila, Darius Lavrinovic, Ksystof Lavrinovic, Linas Kleiza and Robertas Javtokas combined only 18 points and weren't factors for Lithuania.
Russia stopped Lithuania right from the start, and after six minutes one of the best
offensive teams in EuroBasket had only scored three points.
|Siskauskas tried to do it alone, leading all scorers with 30 points.|
Russia took advantage of that to jump out to an 18-3 lead.
Siskauskas and Simas Jasaitis connected on some three-pointers to give Lithuania some life, trailing 20-11, but Russia took a 25-12 lead after ten minutes.
Blatt's side opened the second quarter with two hits from downtown by Victor Khryapa and another by Morgunov.
When Kirilenko added a tip-in, it was a 19 point game, 33-14, but it wasn't over yet.
Up by 17 Khryapa stole the ball at mid-court and was on his way to send a message with a big dunk.
He missed and Rimas Kaukenas nail a corner three pointer at the other end, setting the score at 33-19 and starting the comeback.
Saras returned off the bench to hit a three-pointer of his own with a minute to go in the first half and Russia's lead was narrowed to no more than six, but the action wasn't over yet.
Lithuania finished the half down by seven, 40-33, and three minutes inside the second half was all the way back in the game.
Saras hit a mid-range jumper and dished an assist for a three-pointer by Jasaitis who made it 45-42.
Russia hung on to the lead with every nail and muscle, but Lithuania's aggressive defense and great execution made it a new game.
Siskauskas hit five in a row to force Blatt to call a time-out, this time without the lead anymore, 52-52 with a little over four minutes to play in the third.
Big players step up in big moments, and that’s what Kirilenko was about to do.
Six points in a row followed by a big block on Linas Kleiza sent Russia on an eight point lead again, 60-52.
When Khryapa nailed his third three-pointer of the night and set the margin on 11 again, Lithuania was called on a challenge – to prove they have the character to come back again.
Squeezing their last drops of courage Lithuania answered immediately.
Siska hit two from the line, instantly stole the ball and finished with a big dunk and opened the last quarter with a three pointer to cap an individual 7-0 run and make it 65-61.
But tonight was Kirilenko's night, and in order to prove that he replied with a 7-0 run of his own and the gap was 11 again, with 7:48 to play in the semi-finals.
With less than a minute to go the celebrations on the Russian bench emerged as a team that nobody believed in back home is in the EuroBasket finals.
A group of underdogs on a mission.
Russia will take on Spain in the 2007 EuroBasket finals, while Lithuania will face Greece in the game for the bronze medal, which will also be a game for the second secured ticket to the 2008 Olympics.