Once in a life-time Lithuania's victory over the USA, that doesn't matter. Or does it?

Donatas Urbonas
Senior Staff Writer
2023-09-04 06:28

The significance of Lithuania's victory against the USA is not defined by the importance of the game, securing a spot in the next stage, obtaining an Olympic ticket, or other factors.

Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

"88:87, 1 minute and 40 seconds to go in a game between Lithuania and USA. Jasikevicius! Once again, from the three-point line... Tenth point (in a row) for Jasikevicius! What Sarunas Jasikevicius is doing in the fourth quarter today... As if remembering that desperate missed shot in Sydney, he's trying to redeem the entire Lithuanian team today."

These are quotes from the former Lithuanian TV commentator Linas Kunigelis, who called the 2004 Olympic basketball tournament game between Lithuania and Team USA.

On that unforgettable night, Lithuania, led by Sarunas Jasikevicius' 28-point performance (7/12 3FG), reached a historic victory against Team USA. This marked Lithuania's first-ever win against a Team USA lineup formed of NBA players.

I was only 12 years old back then. In the following weeks, I could effortlessly repeat Linas Kunigelis' exact words with the same passion after watching the clip thousands of times.

Lithuania made it to the semifinals, but to everyone's surprise, they suffered an unexpected loss to Italy and later stumbled against the USA in the bronze medal game.

Some refer to it as the 'Olympics of Broken Dreams,' as Lithuania had assembled a 'Dream Team' featuring a EuroLeague champion Sarunas Jasikevicius and a handful of other shining EuroLeague stars like Arvydas Macijauskas, Ramunas Siskauskas, Saulius Stombergas, among others.

But for me, a 12-year-old kid from Panevezys, I couldn't stop replaying that same video where Saras dethroned the seemingly unbeatable NBA team that included Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, and others.

The brilliance of his three-point shooting, the intensity of crunch time, and the ultimate underdog victory that showed nothing is impossible were all things that left me dizzy with excitement and made me fall in love with the game all over again.

Vaidas Kariniauskas watched that game maybe ten times.

"Saras Does America" - he recalled the title of that YouTube video, following sensational Lithuania victory over the USA, 110-104.

"Vaidas does America?" Lithuanian journalists suggested, reflecting on his performance against the Team USA.

"That's how it goes."

Even today, Greek journalists can't help but smile when they hear his name, considering that just four years ago, he was playing in the second division in Greece.

This summer, a 29-year-old point guard signed with the M Basket Mazeikiai club, which recently was promoted to the top Lithuanian basketball league.

Not too long ago, Kariniauskas endured criticism from Lithuanian basketball fans for his performance during the World Cup preparations.

However, now he found himself outplaying one of the most popular members of Team USA, Austin Reaves, the second-highest scorer on the top-ranked team in the tournament. Even the Los Angeles Lakers player couldn't defend the low post effectively and ended up conceding consecutive 'and-one' plays of Kariniauskas.

"We sat on the bench and couldn't believe what he was doing on the court," said Rokas Jokubaitis, the New York Knicks draftee, with a smile. "I'm very happy for him. Stepping onto the court and leading the team like that, getting an 'and-one' play, and then hitting the three... He even found time to trash talk. I'm genuinely delighted for him. He needed a game like this."

Kariniauskas finished the game with 15 points in less than 17 minutes and inspired a viral meme.

"It's a great feeling. It's nice that we play as a team. Against such a country... 300 million, while we have only three. I still can't believe we won," the game hero said.

"Vaidas Kariniauskas from M Basket Mazeikiai against Anthony Edwards. That's unbelievable," former New York Knicks forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas laughed, trying to convey the magnitude of this victory.

"The game started, and I observed the coaching staff, how coach Maksvytis was walking on the sidelines. On the other side, you have Steve Kerr and other NBA champions on the bench. This is incredible. It's an unimaginable victory," he smiled more than ever.

"I genuinely believe that Team USA players weren't familiar with at least half of our team. They didn't appear to show much interest in us initially. Brunson? I seriously doubt if he even knows I'm a part of the Knicks," Jokubaitis added.

Caught in the hype, even Kariniauskas' agent gave a reminder that his player has an exit clause in his contract with M Basket just right before the start of the season.

There was another iconic moment. Lithuania built a 21-point lead early in the second quarter, largely thanks to a spectacular three-point shooting.

They started by making all nine three-point attempts. The same shower of threes crushed the Greek team during a decisive stretch.

If we add up all the three-point attempts from the second half against Greece and the early part of the second quarter against the USA, Lithuania made 21 out of 25 shots from beyond the arc.

"I don't know how to explain it," Kariniauskas said. "Sometimes we defend well, and three-pointers come from that. But other times, the ball moves well. It all comes down to this: if you shoot right away, there's nothing. If you move the ball forward, backward, inside, and outside, you'll make the shot. That's the dynamics of basketball."

"We have good shooters," former NBA big man Donatas Motiejunas praised his teammates.

Lithuania leads the World Cup in three-point shooting accuracy (46.4%). For comparison, the second-best team, South Sudan, made three-pointers with 40.7% accuracy.

Lithuanians were 14 of 25 beyond the arc against Team USA.

"If you look at the footage, all the shots were well-executed. There was good ball movement, and we created open looks. If those nine were contested, you could say there was a lot of luck included. But it wasn't. Maybe you won't make them all in the next game, but it's fun," said Motiejunas.

With such confidence and accuracy entering the game, Lithuania spread its wings. Jonas Valanciunas dominated the paint and forced the NBA's best defensive player of the year, Jarren Jackson, into early foul trouble.

Instead of trying to slow down the pace to prevent the Americans from running, the Lithuanians played like All-Stars and were all over the court. Team USA couldn't find a solution.

In the second half, they finally increased the intensity, pushed the Lithuanians out of their positions, and came close to closing the gap. But with a few perfectly executed plays here and there, a lucky shot now and then, those twelve Lithuanian heroes made the entire country proud.

"It felt like this game would last an eternity. We wanted it to end sooner," Kariniauskas recalled the crucial Team USA surge. "But we pulled ourselves together and ran a fast pace. It seemed like we planned to play slowly against them, but we ran and scored 110 points. We played more in their style."

"Team basketball. As always, we played team basketball," Jonas Valanciunas recalled. "We simply enjoyed the game of basketball. You can't hide in the bushes when playing against such a team. You have to follow the plan and execute everything as it's supposed to be. And everything turned out well."

"It's still hard to understand what we've achieved here. It's an incredible feeling to beat America... I can imagine how the whole of Lithuania is celebrating right now. Family, friends—everyone is overjoyed. It's been almost 20 years since this happened... We defeated America," Jokubaitis was stunned.

He was three years old when Lithuania defeated the Americans in 2004.

How to stay grounded?

"Serbia forces us to stay grounded. You relax, lose one game, and go home with nothing. We'll remain calm because Serbia is a serious team. Winning against the United States is great, but we'll forget it as soon as we leave the arena," Jokubaitis, 22, acted with maturity.

Lithuania's victory against the Americans doesn't hold significant importance for both teams. Although they determined the winner of Group J, both Lithuania and the USA had already secured their spots in the next stage prior to the game and couldn't control their positions ahead of the quarterfinal matchups.

If Lithuania loses to Serbia in the quarterfinals, they will be left without medals and a guaranteed spot in the Paris Olympic Games.

And this whole magical night against NBA players will remain just as a pleasant memory.

"Serbia is a very strong team. They played a few really great games. They have powerful players in all positions. There's no mismatch where they can't defend or attack. It will certainly not be easy," Jonas Valanciunas approaches the quarterfinal matchup against Serbia with respect.

"It's not every day you beat the USA team, but personally, the victory against Greece, when we secured our spot in the next stage, brought me even more joy," Kuzminskas, who will be playing for AEK Athens next season, admitted.

"We won the group, but it's not a medal. The main games are tomorrow. The victory is delightful and symbolic, but everything lies ahead," he added.

What would he say to someone who, before the championship, said that Lithuania would start 5-0 and beat the Americans?

"Sober up," Kuzminskas laughed.

"Let's be realistic, and I'm quite realistic. We can talk about what we've achieved, but we haven't achieved anything. The minimum plan is accomplished, especially when everyone wrote us off. I hope they continue to underestimate us because it motivates us," he added.

"I'm grounded, for sure. I think the others are, too. We understand what kind of team we are. Nothing has been achieved yet. Only through hard work and putting in effort can we achieve something," Donatas Motiejunas admitted.

"In the locker room, I told the guys that it's one of the greatest victories in our careers. But it's a victory we have to cherish the most briefly. We need to conserve our emotions and energy for the upcoming games, which start in less than 48 hours," coach Kazys Maksvytis concluded.

Maksvytis and his coaching staff (Benas Matkevicius, Giedrius Zibenas, Evaldas Berzininkaitis, Tomas Rinkevicius) did exceptional homework one more time, going up against the Hall of Fame coaching staff with Steve Kerr, Erik Spoelstra, Tyronn Lue, and Mark Few on the Team USA bench.

"This is like a dream come true. If someone had told me 20 years ago that the coach who trained me in my youth age would defeat an NBA champion coach and, in general, that he would play against the USA as the national team's coach... I'm very happy for his success. I know how much effort he puts in. How much love he has for this sport. I know that Darbenai [Maksvytis' hometown] is certainly celebrating now," Motiejunas was proud of his coach Maksvytis.

What kind of moves will kids and teenagers practice in the coming weeks or months?

Will Vaidas Kariniauskas' post-up move and tongue celebration become their go-to antic after 'and-one' plays in pick-up or official high-school games?

Will they attempt to dunk the ball like Ignas Brazdeikis over Paolo Banchero?

Will they try to achieve a streak of nine three-pointers in a row?

Are they going to quote the words of Lithuanian TV commentators from those highlight plays, like I did in 2004?

Lithuanian players may not speak differently before the quarterfinals against Serbia. However, they are not entirely correct. This victory is not an insignificant win in a meaningless group-stage game.

Is it all about the final result in the standings, or is it about the process?

The ultimate outcome will still be determined during this crucial week in Manila. Serbia has every chance to end this Cinderella story crafted by this special group of Lithuanians.

Yet, they have already created an inspirational story that we'll remember for years, regardless of the final result.

The emotions that such a beautiful victory brings are immeasurable by any medals, Olympic berths, or FIBA ranking points.

These are moments that carve memories in our minds for a lifetime, moments when we can say, 'I was there, and I witnessed this.'

These are the games that, in their imaginations, children will try to replay on neighborhood courts.

Tournament standings, playoff brackets, and medals? Yes, they will settle in the sports history books.

But this game is about the joy and inspiration that Lithuania's victory against the USA brought to many Lithuanians, including young kids who dream or now will start dreaming of playing basketball.

That is what matters.


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