RIGA (FIBA U19 World Championship) – Two nights ago Russia were sweating on the results of other games just to qualify for the final eight. Now they have beaten USA and have Lithuania firmly in their targets.
The talk amongst fans prior to this tournament was if Lithuania has what it would take to knock over USA in the final. But when Croatia threw a spanner into the works by beating USA and sending them to the same side of the draw as Lithuania, the talk was if Lithuania has what it would take to get past USA in what was already being talked up amongst fans as ultimately the game that would decide the champion. Too bad that nobody sent Russia the memo.
For this entire tournament Russia has been living by a rapidly expiring lifeline. Claiming the last spot going in Group A to advance to the next round the unpredictable Russians then looked like they had run out of luck at the Eighth-Quarter finals. But when Brazil went against their coaches’ advice and decided not to foul on the final play against Argentina, Russia were grabbing another lifeline, moving into the quarterfinal round where surely their luck would run out against pre tournament favorites USA.
It was there however that Russia showed what they are truly capable of when they arrive at the stadium with their “A” game, leading throughout against the United States, handing them an early exit on the back of a textbook display of three point shooting.
It is their three point shooting that could prove to be their major weapon against the Lithuanians who in Jonas Valanciunas have one of the most dominant centers seen in FIBA age grade competitions. If Russia can find their range early they may be able to avoid a need to take it to the basket and try to go over the top of the 2.10 meter blocking machine..
Lithuania make no secret of their heavy reliance on Valanciunas to carry the fortunes of their team. You only need to watch highlights of Lithuania’s quarterfinal victory over Poland to understand why with Valanciunas hauling in 24 rebounds to go with 26 points, giving him a +50 efficiency. The whole Polish team combined could only manage an efficiency rating of +69.
Off course, Valanciunas does not come without a worthy support crew, ably led by Vytenis Cizauskas and Dovydas Redikas. Cizauskas returned to action on Friday following a two game layoff, providing his side with the decision making that had perhaps been lacking at time, particularly in his side’s loss to USA on Tuesday.
Even among the most conservative when it comes to predictions Lithuania are firm favourites for the title. But as we saw on Friday, Russia pay little attention to labels.
Just how long can a product remain good following its expiry date? The answer may be somewhat clearer on Saturday evening.