Dominant Valanciunas outing leads Lithuania over Ukraine

Lithuania 94, Ukraine 62 | Box Score

EuroBasket so far had been a mixed bag for Jonas Valanciunas and Lithuania. After a disappointing upset loss to Georgia, their play over a pair of bounce-back victories was mostly strong, but a few cracks – turnovers and a lack of outside shooting – persisted enough to cause concern as the leverage of each game ratchets up. After a day off to regroup Monday, Lithuania was in search of an emphatic victory against a lesser team in Ukraine, ironing out the issues that left them susceptible against Georgia and kept them from pulling comfortably away from Israel and Italy. To say they found that emphatic victory might be an understatement, as Lithuania crushed an overmatched Ukraine team to the tune of 94-62, putting their first indelible stamp on EuroBasket 2017.

Valanciunas picked up right where he left off in Sunday’s second half, showing some physical dominance early on. With his personal hero and Lithuanian basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis sitting close by and willing to lend words of advice throughout the game (Valanciunas appeared to get a second wind after talking with Sabonis in the second quarter after looking seemingly disappointed with a few missed opportunities for teammates to find him), Valanciunas once again led his side (and the game) at halftime with 14 points and eight rebounds. He even did a nice job switched onto Viacheslav Kravtsov late. Donatas Motiejunas had a strong start, too, hitting his first three attempts from the floor, and within a blink Lithuania had opened up a 17-point lead.

This seemed like it would be about as much of a formality as Saturday’s second half against Israel was, but some difficulties both old and new reared their head in the second quarter – Lithuania’s lack of shooting dared Ukraine into a two-three zone that it took a few made threes to break, and Lithuania inexplicably came unglued on their own glass. Ukraine used 11 offensive rebounds, the bulk of them off misses from outside, helping them trim the lead to single-digits. It would get extended back out to 44-30 as Ukraine continued to struggle shooting and Lithuania got a handle on their turnover issues from earlier in the tournament, and Lithuania headed into the break back in control.

The second half started out tough for Lithuania, as it appears Jonas Maciulis may have suffered a broken nose when taking a head-butt…as he got whistled for a foul. It looked painful, and Maciulis is a big part of what Lithuania does, so that loomed large. It also seemed to spark Ukraine briefly, as they connected on a terrific alley-oop shortly after, but as has been the case during a lot of opponent runs in the group stage, Valanciunas getting to the line settled things. Valanciunas also took a stiff elbow to the face defending at the rim, but he motored along, continuing to dominate on the glass and near the rim on offense.

(Hire Sabonis for the Toronto Raptors’ coaching staff right now. This was honestly Valanciunas’ best international game since EuroBasket 2015.)

When Valanciunas sat late in the third, the lead was back above 20, and with a back-to-back situation looming, pulling away further would be welcome. Artem Pustovyi tried his damnedest to keep Ukraine in it, but their complete inability to generate offense outside of him – and Lithuania catching fire from outside for the first time all tournament – made for a 25-point lead entering the fourth. For some reason, Valanciunas returned in the fourth for a quick and-one to push the lead to 30. He’d mercifully be pulled, finishing with 22 points on 11 field-goal attempts, 14 rebounds, an assist, a steal, and a ludicrous plus-30 rating in just 24 minutes.

Lithuania cruised from there, moving to 3-1 in the tournament and punching their ticket to the Round of 16 later this week. They’ll still need to get through Germany tomorrow, and they’ll want that victory in order to secure the top seed in Group B (the winner of Germany-Italy today will also be 3-1). The bigger-picture focus, though, will be on the continued growth they’ve shown throughout the tournament, something they’ll surely hope continues as they look to peak for the knockout stage. Performances like this from Valanciunas will help a great deal.

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