Masters vs Apprentices: Lithuania's Sakiai and Utena clash at FIBA 3x3 World Tour Jeddah Final
JEDDAH (Saudi Arabia) - Lithuanian bragging rights will be on the line when Sakiai Gulbele and Utena Uniclub clash in a Day 1 blockbuster at the FIBA 3x3 World Tour Final in Jeddah on December 18-19.
Lithuania has been a powerhouse hoops nation for decades but arrived with a bang on the 3x3 scene last year after Sakiai's stunning emergence. Aurelijus Pukelis, Marijus Uzupis and Paulius Beliavicius were a three-headed monster as Sakiai stormed to a historic victory at the Montreal Masters.
Inspired by their countrymen and perhaps learning some tricks from them, Utena Uniclub's dazzling debut season on the World Tour has ensured Sakiai have hot competition for the pride of Lithuania.
The new kids on the block shocked the field to reach the Debrecen Masters final, where Ignas Vaitkus quickly proved to be a superstar to finish with the highest average in the Hungary bubble at 8.2 points per game.
He also topped the prestigious player value per game (Points x Points/Field Goals attempted + Blocks + Key Assists + Tissot Buzzer Beaters - Turnovers + Rebounds/2).
In their first battle on the World Tour, round one went to the apprentices with Utena Uniclub recovering from an early hole to win an overtime classic. Vaitkus proved the difference with a game-high 9 points and the 1.97m (6ft 6in) versatile player continually overwhelmed defenders.
The normally slick Sakiai struggled badly from deep shooting a woeful 3 of 17 as they crashed out of the season's first masters.
It will be Lith-O-Mania in Jeddah and round 2 between the rivals who square off in Pool D on the opening day.
Both teams will be confident having improved since that first matchup in late August. Sakiai's memorable 2019 seemed a lifetime ago after looking incredibly rusty during winless campaigns at the Debrecen and Hungary Masters.
But they rediscovered their best at the Europe Masters with a runners-up finish from qualification. Sarunas Vingelis and Aurelijus Pukelis dominated throughout with a one-two scoring punch as they racked up 30 points apiece in 5 games.
Marijus Uzupis, who struggled in Hungary, won't be in Jeddah adding to the importance of Paulius Beliavicius recapturing the magic of last year after he too was inconsistent in the trio of masters.
If he can then the No.5 seed should feel confident of clawing out of the 'Group of Death', which also features No.4 seed NY Harlem who they beat at the Europe Masters.
Sakiai will also want to get on the board against 12th seed Utena Uniclub, who will be an even more formidable foe this time around. Utena proved Debrecen wasn't a fluke with a semi-final finish in Doha, where they were strengthened by the addition of Zygimantas Skucas aka 'the Lithuanian Rodman' who quickly became a crowd favorite.
It wasn't just his relentless hustle and hilarious celebrations that caught the eye. Skucas has taken to 3x3 with ease and he averaged a team-high 7.7 points per game in Doha to provide Vaitkus plenty of support.
Utena Uniclub might be the lowest seed at the World Tour Final but everyone knows it is simply because the rankings have been frozen since April 1 and they are a serious threat to take out the title on debut.
It all adds to this new and exciting 3x3 rivalry with the stakes considerably raised from their earlier meeting.
The battle for Lithuania (and for a spot on the national team roster for the FIBA 3x3 Olympic Qualifying Tournament next year?) is just heating up.