Lithuania outlasts Serbia, headed to Rio Olympics

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It wasn’t pretty. The winning team shot 14.3 percent from three. The team that shot 32.8 percent overall only lost by three. The referees allowed a wrestling match in the paint (then called some random fouls, because it’s FIBA). It was a defensive slugfest that saw 43 free throws in 40 minutes of play.

But it was entertaining.

Lithuania will take it. All game long they would make runs and gain a little separation only to see previously unbeaten Serbia charge back. It happened again late in the fourth quarter when Lithuania got a little room to breathe only to have Serbia’s Milos Teodosic hit a leaning three to make it a one-point game with 14 seconds to go. Serbia had their chance, however after an ugly Bogdan Bogdanovic turnover Lithuania held on to win, 67-64. With the victory, Lithuania advances to the EuroBasket Finals to face Spain.

More importantly, Lithuania earns an automatic berth in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Serbia will need to go through next summer’s qualifying tournaments to get in the Brazilian dance (although they will be a favorite to do so).

Lithuania was led by Raptor big man Jonas Valanciunas, who had 15 points and four blocked shots. Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Renaldas Seibutis each had 13, but the guy whose line told the story of this game was Mantas Kalnietis: 12 points nine assists, eight turnovers. Kalnietis was alternately making plays or doing something sloppy that kept Serbia in it.

We saw that in the first half. Lithuania had led by as many as 11 in the second quarter and was controlling play with their physical defense, but a few missed shots and turnovers sparked a Serbian run in the final couple minutes of the half, and it was a one-point game at the break.

In the third quarter, Serbia tried to so smaller and at first it didn’t work, and again it looked like Lithuania might pull away. But Lithuania was ice-cold from three (and they missed a lot of good looks), and by the time there was just four minutes left in the third the tide had turned and Serbia had taken the lead. Then things swung again by the end of the third it was Lithuania up by 5.

And so it went. Back and forth, right down to the end. After the Teodosic three to make it a one-point game with 14 seconds left, Serbia fouled but Lithuania only hit one of the two free throws — it was a two-point game. Rather than set up a play or give the ball to the hot hand of Teodosic, Bogdanovic got the ball, drove before the defense could set and put up a wild shot trying to draw the foul. He failed. Lithuania got the rebound and it was all but over.

Teodosic had 16 points to lead Serbia. He has been rumored to want to jump to the NBA before, but he wanted to get paid to do it. Incoming Timberwolves rookie Nemanja Bjelica added 10 (and looked like a guy with potential but who needs to sharpen his body and skills to impact the NBA).