The fact that U18 Zalgiris Kaunas has reached the ADIDAS NEXT GENERATION TOURNAMENT Finals in Istanbul should not be a surprise. After all, the captain of the team is Ignas Sargiunas, and great results just seem to follow him wherever he goes.
Zalgiris remained undefeated in ANGT Qualifying Tournament Kaunas games at Zalgirio Arena in January to book its fourth straight trip to the ANGT Finals. And Sargiunas played a major role, averaging 9.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.8 steals in the four games. That showed evidence of progression from his numbers in the same qualifying event a year ago: 6.8 points, 1.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.0 steals.
The 17-year-old guard admitted that the Lithuanian powerhouse sensed the weight of expectations from Zalgiris fans as the club came into this year's tournament with 12 straight qualifying tournament wins.
"We are happy to have a ticket to Istanbul," said Sargiunas,
"We felt the pressure this year because our team really didn’t have any elite stars or leaders. We really had to play like a team. Also our arena and Zalgiris haven't seen a loss for four years, but we did our job and won a title."
Great results have become almost normalcy for the Kaunas native.
In addition to winning two ANGT Kaunas titles, Sargiunas helped Lithuania to the silver medal at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2015. He then added another silver at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2016 and a third-place finish at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2016. "This two-year span is really full of titles for most of the 1999-born players on this team," said Sargiunas, who teamed up with Zalgiris teammates Grantas Vasiliauskas and Lukas Uleckas for those national team accomplishments.
"It’s really great. We worked hard for that. I'm happy to compete at tournaments like that and happy to get medals."
Zalgiris meanwhile will be heading to Istanbul knowing that, due to the lack of superstars that Sargiunas mentioned, it must truly work as a team to grab a third continental title. Sargiunas was one of five Zalgiris players to average between 9 and 10.3 points in the tournament. "We did a great job on defense and shared the ball on offense," he said. "We played team basketball. That’s how we got the victory. We wanted it very much."
Sargiunas values every game he plays for this Zalgiris even more since he serves as the captain.
"This is the first time I am captain of any team I have played for, so you have even more responsibility. You have to take care of the team. You also have more pressure," he said.
Even though Zalgiris will be playing at its fourth straight ANGT Finals - and now 13 of the 15 editions in the competition’s history - the two-time champion last reigned over Europe in 2007. Their other title was the inaugural ANGT crown in 2003. The last time Zalgiris reached the ANGT Championship Game was 2011, losing to U18 KK Zagreb. "We will try our best in Istanbul, just like in Kaunas," Sargiunas said. "We will fight and try to win every game. We will fight for the title."
And Zalgiris actually has good chances with a winner like Sargiunas on board.