Sakiai make 3x3 statement after taking out Ulaanbaatar Challenger and clinching ticket to Prague Masters
The lethal Lithuanians stunned hometown favorites Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy in a tight final to claim the title in the first Challenger of the season.
Here's what happened.
The winners: Sakiai (LTU)
They were: No.1 in shooting value
Hands up if you've overlooked these Lithuanians? Don't feel too bad because there have been so many new teams emerge on the pro circuit ever since Sakiai were the cool kids on the block during their breakout in 2019.
But they are clearly sick of being forgotten and have made noise to start 2022. They showed glimpses of their old form during the Utsunomiya Opener, where they made the quarters, and continued the momentum in Ulaanbaatar.
But No.3 seed Sakiai were made to work starting with pulling out a 21-19 thriller against Utsunomiya (JPN) in the opener before losing rather convincingly to host Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy 21-14 to end Day 1.
It appeared the same old story, where Sakiai were not quite good enough to really match it with the big boys. But then they flipped the switch on Day 2 with an upset over No.1 seed Antwerp (BEL) then overcame defensive specialist Dusseldorf LFDY (GER) in the semis.
Sakiai were suddenly on a roll and then powered past Ulaanbaatar to secure a confidence lifting title victory. The triumph was built on their hot shooting - they are the lethal Lithuanians after all - as they nailed a tournament best 39% from 2.
They had a triple threat offense with Paulius Beliavicius, Aurelijus Pukelis and Marijus Uzupis finishing in the top 8 for overall scoring.
Uzupis' impressive performance was most encouraging after he had struggled to recapture his best since being a star in the making when he claimed MVP honours during Sakiai's eye-catching Montreal Masters victory in 2019.
After such a bright start to the season, Sakiai are making sure they won't be ignored anymore.
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The runners-up: Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy (MGL)
For the second straight time, Mongolia's No.1 team finished second at home having also been runner-up at the FIBA 3x3 Ulaanbaatar Super Quest 2022 earlier in the month.
Still, there is a lot to like for Ulaanbaatar as they tune up for next weekend's Manila Masters, which is the second stop on this year's World Tour.
They have weaved in Canadian 3x3 legend Steve Sir seamlessly and his imprint as player-coach has been noticeable with the Mongolians clicking on O marked by an impressive 38% conversion from deep in this event.
Ulaanbaatar were unbeaten en route to the final highlighted by a thrilling win over No.2 seed Amsterdam in the semis. They fell short to No.3 Sakiai in the decider but Ulaanbaatar look the real deal with Sir, Delgernyam Davaasambuu and Dulguun Enkhbat proving a three-headed monster on O.
Still developing chemistry, the signs are good for Ulaanbaatar as they eye a maiden Masters victory in Manila.
The dynamic duo: Sir and Davaasambuu look like they have been playing together for years.
They've shredded defenses in their first two tournaments together with Sir aging better than Tom Cruise while Davasasambuu is the meanest dude in the paint as he once again topped the charts for rebounds.
With their inside-outside game perfectly matching, Sir and Devaasambuu are quickly rocketing up the list of best duos in 3x3 which is a mean feat after such a short time together.
The Final: Sakiai 21- Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy 17
In a country where 3x3 is king, the excitement was in overdrive for the decider and it lived up to top billing. Unfortunately, the hyped up home fans left disappointed with the final result but they were at least thoroughly entertained.
There was no messing around in the re-match from the pool stage with Paulius Beliavicius going right at the D and attacking the rim for the early bucket. Both teams shared like they cared and ran offense to perfection as they traded buckets.
But the Lithuanians went bang, bang to skip out to an early lead as the Mongolians went cold from behind the arc. Sakiai skipped out to a big 14-7 lead when Beliavicius launched from the Gobi desert and it appeared this was a wrap.
Don't ever write off the Mongolians. Davaasambuu took over and flexed down low to get Ulaanbaatar back in it as the fans rediscovered their voice. Dulguun Enkhbat joined in and the margin was cut to 16-14 before Marijus Uzupis brought out his favorite weapon.
The lethal lefty fired his uzi not once, but twice to get Sakiai within one of the title. Ulaanbaatar wouldn't give up but Sakiai were the masters all game. Pukelis banked off the glass from short range to call game well before the time limit and the Lithuanians scored an impressive W to issue a warning to the pro circuit.
The reward: Two tickets to Prague Masters
Sakiai and Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy qualified for the Prague Masters on July 30-31, 2022.
They join Ub Huishan NE (SRB), Riga (LAT) and Omaha 3Ball (USA) as the teams to have qualified.
1. Sakiai (LTU)
2. Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy (MGL)
3. Amsterdam (NED)
4. Dusseldorf LFDY (GER)
5. Antwerp (BEL)
1. Steve Sir (Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy, MGL) 33 pts
2. Paulius Beliavicius (Sakiai, LTU) 32 pts
3. Delgernyam Davaasambuu (Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy, MGL) 29 pts
4. Anand Ariunbold (Sansar MMC Energy, MGL) 29 pts
5. Dimeo van der Horst (Amsterdam, NED) 28 pts
- Two of the top four seeds didn't reach the semis, including struggling Jeddah who were winless after failing to win a game at the Utsunomiya Opener.
-Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy were walking buckets and led the tournament with 20.2ppg but, cruelly, failed to reach the magical target of 21 when it mattered most in the final.
- Delgernyam Davaasambuu again was an absolute beast for Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy and finished as the top rebounder with 33 boards.