By Jeff Taylor
|Mantas Kalnietis has never experienced the atmosphere at the Olympics and did his best to ensure the EuroBasket hosts would recover from the shock quarter-final loss and get the chance to fight for a place in the London games |
Imagine what it feels like to have a proud basketball tradition like Lithuania and to fall short of a EuroBasket podium in front of your own fans.
Wednesday night's 67-65 defeat to F.Y.R. of Macedonia was as painful as any ever experienced by the Lithuanians but in the world of international hoops, players have to bounce back quickly because there is always something at stake.
Kestutis Kemzura's team, 15 sleepless hours after the loss in the quarter-finals, showed what they are truly made of by rallying and beating a determined Slovenia, 80-77, to seal a top-six finish and clinch a place in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Some, like 33-year-old veteran Darius Songaila, have played at the Olympics before.
He shot to international fame at the Sydney Games in 2000 and played four years later in Athens.
It's something he wants to experience again and thanks to the win over Slovenia, it may just happen.
"The atmosphere at the Olympics is just incredible," Songaila said to FIBAEurope.com
"This is just basketball.
"(But) You go there and every day, you're bumping into a guy you don't know.
"He might be one of the greatest athletes in the world.
"Just watching the other athletes prepare for their events, watching other events and experiencing the whole thing is unbelievable."
Other Lithuanians, like point guard Mantas Kalnietis, have never been to an Olympic village.
His chances of doing that next year almost disappeared on Thursday.
Kalnietis, though, the local hero who plays for Zalgiris Kaunas, did his part in making sure Lithuania still have a chance to reach London.
The 25-year-old helped quicken the tempo late in the contest and scored a game-high 17 points.
He hit a go-ahead three-pointer with 19 seconds remaining that propelled the Lithuanians to victory over the Slovenians.
"There was one very big reason for us to win this game and that was to reach the pre-Olympic Qualifying tournament," Kalnietis said.
"Yesterday (Wednesday) was a very tough day for us.
"We didn't sleep much last night.
"We are happy that we won this game but it wasn't easy because both teams wanted this win.
"We were concentrated, and we didn't give up and we won that game."
Kalnietis says much of the credit for Lithuania getting the victory was down to the fans.
"The Lithuanian people didn't expect us to lose the Quarter-Final, but they didn't give up either and they came and supported us again and that really helped us," he said.
"We are still mad about yesterday.
"But any sportsman wants to play at the Olympics and for me it's my dream."
Lithuania will be hoping is that key men Linas Kleiza and Jonas Maciulis recover from the injuries that kept both out of this summer's team.
"Sydney was great, Athens was a little bitter," Songaila said.
"I missed Beijing, and London is coming up. Who knows, we've got the qualifications going on.
"Hopefully, we'll have all the guys healthy next year, Linas (Kleiza) and the younger guys coming up - there are a lot of promising things going on."