By David Hein
Finnish fans were already buzzing about basketball before the season because of the national team's promotion-winning campaign from EuroBasket Division B in the summer.
Now everyone's thrilled by Korisliiga club Lappeenranta advancing to the EuroCup Qualifying Round.
Mika Turunen's team won their first game of the second elimination round tie at Keravnos Nicosia by 16 points and held on at home for a 173-164 aggregate victory.
And a big part of the victory was guard Petri Virtanen, who averaged 21 points, 2.5
rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 steals in the success.
|Fellow fin Pasi Olavi Riihelä has been another key to Lappeenranta's success. |
Virtanen also helped Finland knock off Romania to win promotion to EuroBasket Division A.
Virtanen was held scoreless as Finland lost the first game of the final tie at Romania by seven points, but he came back in the return leg with 23 points as Finland thrashed the Romanians by 40 points at home to book their spot in the Division A.
All told, Virtanen averaged 11.2 points, 1.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.6 steals.
The point guard talked to David Hein on behalf of FIBA Europe.
FIBA Europe: Petri, congratulations on reaching the EuroCup Qualifying Round. What does this mean to the team?
Virtanen: One of our goals was to get to this round. To be among the best 16 teams of this competition is very satisfying, also that we beat the Cypriots.
FIBA Europe: What do you think was the difference against Keravnos?
Virtanen: We were more ready in the first game and had more heart in the first game. That made the difference, winning by 16 points. And then we just tried to survive in the second game and just did a great job.
FIBA Europe: What do you think Lappeenranta reaching the Qualifying Round means to Finnish basketball?
Virtanen: It's a really good thing. This is an opportunity for other teams to see a different kind of game. It's a great opportunity for all young players to see what the next level is all about.
FIBA Europe: Your club was drawn into Group A against CSK-VVS Samara, Tartu Rock and PAOK. What do you think about the draw?
Virtanen: It's a really tough group. We have to really play great games to reach the quarter-finals. But at home, we will have a chance against every team if we play how we can. I think we will not be the favorites in every game. But I'm really, really looking forward to each one.
FIBA Europe: So, what is the goal for the team now?
Virtanen: We haven't thought about it or been talking about it as a team. We just want to keep going as far as possible and just try to be in the top two and go to the quarters. But you have to keep your goals high.
FIBA Europe: Let's turn our attention to the Finnish national team that won promotion to Division A at the senior level by beating Romania this summer. A Finn, Henrik Dettman, guided the team, which included yourself, and he of course helped Germany to the bronze medal at the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis. How much impact did his return to Finland three years ago have on the team's success?
Virtanen: He believes in us and he's been building up our team and everybody has had their role for the past three years and that helped us. Dettman really cares for the players and asks them to come to the national team to get in shape. And none of the players say no when Dettman asks. I think he's really helped my game when I work out with him.
|Marque Perry and Samara await Virtanen in the qualifying round.|
FIBA Europe: There are a number of Finnish players who are playing abroad now, including Teemu Rannikko at Khimky and Hanno Mottola at Aris. How much does that help the state of Finnish basketball?
Virtanen: It's really important, especially for the national team, for players to play in other nations. Hopefully now we can get an NBA player in Petteri Koponen. I hope he makes it and he does well. And it's also good for Finnish basketball that we have players playing college basketball in the United States. In a couple of years they will become professionals and help us even more.
FIBA Europe: You mentioned Petteri Koponen, who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA in the first round as a 19-year-old. What do you think of that whole situation?
Virtanen: It's an honor for all of Finnish basketball. That was really big news because only one guy has ever played in the NBA (Hanno Mottola), and then all of a sudden there comes a 19-year-old kid. He has to work on his game little by little. But he knows it. And he comes to practice and works really, really hard. He really wants to make it to the league.
FIBA Europe: This summer you helped Finland win promotion. What does that mean for the federation?
Virtanen: That was really good for Finnish basketball because everybody has put in a lot of time, especially Dettman. I don't think he would have stayed had we not made it. But over the years we have played a lot of Division A teams and beaten some of them. And now this is a big chance for Finland fans to come and see us play some of the top teams in Europe.
FIBA Europe: How realistic would it be to expect Finland to qualify for EuroBasket 2009 in Poland?
Virtanen: If we just work 100% on defence we would have a chance. But we can't get ahead of ourselves. We need time to make it to the next level as a team. But of course we have a chance to make it.
FIBA Europe: And what would that mean to you?
Virtanen: That would be a dream come true, really for the whole team. That has been our dream since we were little kids. It has been 14 years since we played at the European championship. And that would be a really big thing for all of us.