Zalgiris Kaunas: Where basketball is a religion

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They were THE sporting sensation of the past EuroLeague season: The Lithuanian serial champion Zalgiris Kaunas  coached by folk hero Sarunas Jasikevicius surprisingly made the leap into the Final Four tournament of the premier class last spring and thus duped some of the financial giants. The pride of the basketball nation Lithuania had finished the regular season in sixth place (18-12) before theyy eliminated Olympiakos Piraeus in the play-off quarter-finals. Zalgiris thus took part in the Final Four for the first time since their only title win in 1999, where they won the game for third place against ZSKA Moscow.

"Zalgiris played excellently last year and are continuing this season, although there are some new players," Bayern coach Dejan Radonjic said before the duel with Zalgiris on the twelfth gameday in the EuroLeague this Friday evening (14.12., 20:30 CET). Both teams currently have five wins to their name. "It's interesting," Radonjic continued, "that they play better away, because they won at Efes, Panathinaikos and Podgorica and lost at ZSKA in overtime. Recently they defeated Olympiakos at home and showed that they are in good shape. Above all, we have to be ready against their very strong defense." Their latest 83-75 home win in front of 14,385 fans saw them dominate the Greeks in the second half only allowing 27 points after the break.

Successful coach Jasikevicius, top scorer Davies
Founded in 1944, Zalgiris celebrated five championships during the time of the former Soviet Union, the last three from 1985 to 1987, led by the future NBA legend Arvydas Sabonis. Since Lithuania's independence, the main challenge has been a national duel with Rytas Vilnius, the capital's club, a matchup that Kaunas has dominated since 2011. Since the takeover by the former Point Guard and the EuroLeague star Jasikevicius (four titles, finals MVP 2005), the boundless enthusiasm and upswing have finally returned to Kaunas, where the Zalgirios Arena (14,500 spectators) is always full.

"Zalgiris is synonymous with basketball in Lithuania," said FCBB coach Oliver Kostic, who worked as assistant coach in Kaunas for two years at the beginning of this decade and head coach of the second team for another season. "Basketball is the number one sport in Lithuania and something like a religion, sport has a long tradition there - and, by the way, three million basketball coaches", he smiled. "It was a great challenge and a great privilege to have worked there for three years."

This summer, the Zalgiris team invested heavily in the squad and kept the core of the successful team together. What has remained is US Center Brandon Davies, who has increased his point average to 15.4, Nate Wolters (14.3 ppg, 5.6 apg) and energizer  bunny Forward Aaron White (9,5 ppg). The former Bonn player already knows the atmosphere in the Audi Dome as well as last year's Berlin professional Marius Grigonis (7 ppg) and Thomas Walkup (Ludwigsburg/ 4.1 ppg).

In the domestic LKL the Derby was won on Sunday against Rytas by a final score of 95-86 and are the standings leader. Topscorer was national player Edgaras Ulanovas (15) ahead of Grigonis (14) and Davies (14). As in recent weeks, captain Paulius Jankunas was missing, but his comeback in Munich doesn't seem to be impossible.

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