When usually it has been Lithuania making the Baltics proud with their basketball performances, this time, the story was slightly different. The flag waving the highest by the Baltic Sea was the Latvian red-white-red.
Yes, admittedly, it is still Lithuania that can claim to be the pride of the Baltic countries when it comes to basketball. For Estonia, even dreaming about the World Cup is not common, and reaching the Eurobasket is seen as a historic achievement. For Latvia, this was their very first time at the World Cup.
As for the result of Lithuania this time … if someone offered them a sixth-place finish before the World Cup, they probably would have taken it. Of course, their proud history has seen a bronze-medal win in 2010 and another semi-final appearance in 2014, but they have also been seventh (in 1998 and 2006) and ninth (2019).
One could say that by finishing sixth, they did not fail. They will be remembered for beating the United States, 110-104, in the second group round of the tournament … but then came the 35-point humiliation at the hands of Latvia.
Latvia was a menace to everyone
In their first appearance at the big basketball party, Latvia shocked pretty much everyone in Indonesia and the Philippines. They are considered one of the biggest surprises of the tournament. And deservedly so. Before the second group game, the Latvian national team was not seen as a serious competitor or threat until they dispatched France 88-86, thus eliminating the 2019 bronze medalists. They made no mistake against Lebanon (109-70), while only Canada proved to be a more superior opponent (75-101).
But that was enough to go through, and Latvians already were enjoying a taste of success. Not afraid of anyone, they took down Spain (74-69) and Brazil (104-84) in the second group round, which granted them a ticket to the quarter-finals. Going up against the to-be-champion Germany, Latvia was close to another shock result, but in the end, had to settle for a 79-81 loss. They finished strong though: Italy was beaten 87-82 before the historic battering of Lithuania 98-63 to claim fifth place.
The fairytale becomes even more surreal when considering the background. Last summer, Latvia was left watching the Eurobasket from home after a team coached by Roberts Štelmahers lost to Bosnia & Herzegovina, Greece, and Bulgaria in the qualifying round.
Latvia had only missed the Euros twice while finishing as high as fifth in 2017. However, that disaster brought some changes. Instead of Štelmahers, the charismatic Luca Banchi was hired.
Under the 58-year-old Italian expert, Latvians regained belief and hope. Turkey, Greece, and the now silver medalists Serbia were all beaten during the qualifying round. It came as no surprise that Banchi was named the best coach of the World Cup. He was the mastermind behind Latvia rising from the ashes.
Team comes first
But, of course, it was not Banchi alone. A brilliant plan needs brilliant players to fulfill it, and Latvia had a dozen of them: Rodions Kurucs, Dāvis Bertāns, Dairis Bertāns, Rolands Šmits, Artūrs Strautiņš, Klāvs Čavars, Aigars Šķēle, Andrejs Gražulis, Anžejs Pasečņiks, Artūrs Kurucs, Kristers Zoriks, and Artūrs Žagars.
Or 11, considering that the tournament was over for Dairis Bertāns already in their second game due to injury. Maybe that was one of the reasons Latvia went so far.
They did not have all of their best players available. Kristaps Porziņģis, Rihards Lomažs, and Jānis Strēlnieks were out of the squad, but they had a team that relied on each other, even more so when their captain went down. Some guys stepped up when it mattered, Žagars for one, but they won and lost as a team — all eleven of them.
And that is why, although Germany was the deserving champion, Latvia might have been the team of the tournament. They came, they saw, and they conquered. It certainly feels that way, especially considering the basketball history and past performances of this small Baltic country.