On the Krepsinis.net portal, a project dedicated to recalling the most important victories of the Lithuanian national team continues.
This time, the focus is on the year 2004 and the capital of Greece, Athens – although the victorious Lithuanian national team was left without medals, many basketball fans remembered this tournament as the most realistic opportunity to capture even the Olympic gold, and as one of the best in the entire history of our country.
Composition of the Lithuanian national team: Šarūnas Jasikevičius, Vidas Ginevičius, Dainius Šalenga, Arvydas Macijauskas, Ramūnas Šiškauskas, Donatas Slanina, Mindaugas Žukauskas, Darius Songaila, Saulius Štombergas, Kšištofs Lavrinovičius, Eurelijus Žukauskas, Robert Javtokas.
This team already at that time had everything to be blessed and successful. Š. Jasikevičius, who had just won the EuroLeague with Maccabi Tel Aviv, led the team’s play on the field, while A. Macijauskas, who had proven his sniper qualities in Vitoria’s Tau Ceramica, and R. Šiškauskas, who had just signed a contract with Treviso Benetton, functioned on the perimeter.
The then team captain S. Štombergas played for the last time in the national team, and the front line was filled by D. Songaila, who had already established himself in the National Basketball Association (NBA), Robert Javtokas, who had recovered from the accident, and the tandem of K. Lavrinović and E. Žukauskas.
A start that justified the status
The Lithuanian men’s basketball team arrived in Athens as one of the most realistic contenders to fight for medals. Four years ago, Lithuanians won bronze in Sydney, and 2003 was marked by European gold. The team was practically unchanged from the golden march in Sweden, and the leaders only further consolidated their positions in club basketball.
The Lithuanians played their first match early in the morning against the little-known Angola national team and woke up only in the second half of the meeting. After two quarters, the team led by Antanas Sireika managed to get things right at the very end of the match and beat the representatives of the African continent 78:73. Lithuania was led to victory by the tall tandem – E. Žukauskas and K. Lavrinovičius scored 15 points each.
The second Lithuanian opponent was the Puerto Rican national team, which presented a sensation in the first round. In the opener, Carlos Arroyo poured in 24 points as the Puerto Ricans crushed a stunned United States of America (USA) 92-73. However, the Lithuanians were not frightened by such a statement from their rivals – the Lithuanians responded to the attack with an attack and our national team scored 16 three-pointers and celebrated the victory 98:90.
It was then that it became obvious that the Lithuanian train was accelerating. The hosts, the Greeks, had no chance – although Nikos Zisis still tried to save his team by scoring 18 points, the tandem of Ramūnas Šiškauskas and Saulius Štombergs simply drove the Greeks to despair. The forwards scored 47 points together, and Lithuania defeated the Greeks 98:76.
What happened after that is written in golden letters in the history of Lithuanian basketball. The USA national team, which had already stumbled at the start of the competition, bounced back against the Lithuanian barrier. “Sharas does America” is a video that still collects views on YouTube. The Golden Boy’s three-pointers at the end of the game and 28 points in total did not leave hope for the rivals led by Richard Jefferson and Tim Duncan – 94-90. Nineteen-year-old LeBron James watched the triumphant Lithuanians, and the future NBA star missed both shots in 6 minutes and did not score a single point.
The victory against the Americans did not put the Lithuanians to sleep, and the work had to be done until the end – in the last match of the group, A. Sireika’s pupils gave up 100 points to the Australians (100:85) and finished the group stage without stumbling once and taking the first place.
A historic chance
At the quarter-final stage, the Lithuanian national team faced a challenge from China. In Group A, the Chinese then finished with 2 victories, which was enough to reach the top eight. The Lithuanian rivals were unable to defeat the national teams of New Zealand and Serbia and Montenegro.
China’s entire game revolved around one man, the 229cm midfielder Yao Ming. Even the Lithuanians could not stop this giant – Y. Mingas scored 29 points, but this did not become a problem for our national team. As is usual in this tournament, the Lithuanians shot perfectly from afar (11/20 threes), and Arvydas Macijauskas, who scored even 32 points, led our team to the semi-finals – 95:75.
The Lithuanian national team, which made it to the semi-finals without any problems, had to play in the second match, so they already knew that the USA basketball players would not be waiting for them in the final. Manu Ginobili scored 29 points for the Americans and the Argentines defeated the USA basketball players 89:81. One thing was clear – there would be no need to face the USA on the way to gold.
Perhaps this put a foot on the Lithuanian national team – the Italian national team, which until then did not make a big impression, played perhaps its best match in the country’s history and prevented the Lithuanians from reaching the final. The opponents hit 18 three-pointers out of 28 (64%), and finally our national team collapsed after the fifth foul of Saulius Štombergs, who tried to save the team. The striker scored 12 points in that match, and only A. Macijauskas played more productively than him – 26. R. Šiškauskas (1/12 shots) and Š. Jasikevičius (3/15 shots) were empty. Gianluca Basile was just raging in the ranks of the opponents, scoring 31 points (7/11 treys), and Giacomo Galanda’s 4 out of 5 shots (16 points) were even more painful. The Lithuanian national team, which played perfectly until then (91:100), suffered one of the most painful defeats and was left without the final of the Olympic Games.
Usually, Lithuanians lacked motivation in the match for the third place, but this time was an exception. The final is too close and the opponent in the mini final is too powerful. 96:104, the Lithuanians lost the bronze match to the USA national team and for the first time returned from the Olympics without medals.
It’s a pity, but the generation of S. Štomberg, R. Šiškauskas, A. Macijauskas and Š. Jasikevičius was a little short of a happy ending – despite this, this team is considered one of the strongest in the history of Lithuanian basketball. And the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens are remembered by the fans as “what if…”.