Vaitkus and Utena Uniclub out to prove they are the real deal
UTENA (Lithuania) - If not for the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a strong chance upstart Utena Uniclub (LTU) might have emerged as a powerhouse on this year's World Tour.
Unfortunately due to the pandemic, there have only been three Masters this season -all held in Hungary successively in late August and early September. Despite the lack of playing opportunities, the Lithuanians have already made a resounding statement after finishing runners-up at the Debrecen Masters.
On their World Tour debut, a nerveless Utena played like experienced vets to register victories against compatriots Sakiai, who were the World Tour's underdog success story last year, Team Amsterdam (NED) and No.3 seed Riga (LAT).
Utena's size and versatility proved ideal for 3x3 and a major headache for opponents. But when things were tense, the crafty 6ft 6in. (1.98m) Vaitkus made the type of plays under pressure that only the superstars can produce.
He had the highest average in the Hungary bubble at 8.2 points per game and finished on top of the prestigious player value per game (Points x Points/Field Goals attempted + Blocks + Key Assists + Tissot Buzzer Beaters - Turnovers + Rebounds/2).
Even though he quickly became a force, the humble Vaitkus said it was the team's chemistry that was key to their success on debut. "I don't care if I score 1 or 10 points, if we win I'm happy," he said. "I have an amazing feeling playing 3x3 and I'm just happy to be part of it."
At the upcoming Doha Masters, Utena will have a chance to prove that Hungary was no fluke and, more importantly, try to secure qualification for next month's World Tour Final in Jeddah on December 18-19. Even though they've played in just one Masters, Utena are currently ranked ninth on the standings with the top 12 teams to qualify for Saudi Arabia.
Opponents should be warned because a confident Utena believe they are no one-hit wonders. "We didn't know what to expect (in Hungary)," Vaitkus said.
"I think every part of our game can improve but we were not surprised we did well. Our size is a strength as it means we don't have a lot of mismatches and can be more mobile in both defense and offence.
"We have been watching how top 3x3 teams play in crucial moments," the 27-year-old added. "The system of 3x3 is different from basketball, which we have been playing all our lives."
Preparing for Doha, Utena have had a setback with their players contracting the coronavirus but the adversity has fueled their determination.
"We have had to isolate for two weeks and that has been tough for us to be away from 3x3," Vaitkus said. "I think we will have time to be 100% ready for Doha. As soon as we can train again, we will be back in shape and ready
"We will fight every step and every game. All the teams are good in Doha but we just need to be focused and stick to our plan.
"We have a lot of potential."