Linas Kleiza had the hot hand early on, and Jonas Maciulis kept it going as Lithuania eased into Sunday’s Eurobasket final.

Panathinaikos’ Maciulis led the Lithuanian attack with 23 points with Fenerbahce’s Kleiza adding 22 points to guide the Baltic giants to a 77-62 win over Croatia at the Stozice Arena and book their spot in Sunday’s Eurobasket final.

“They are leaders of this team and they got to come through to help us,” Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas said afterwards.

It was a question of how Croatia would respond in the second half? They allowed Lithuania to finish the stronger of the two teams by allowing too much inside. Resulting with scores or trips to the line, but they were not out of it, trailing 40-37 and with hope and fate in their hands.

Unfortunately the answer wasn’t positive. Maciulis scored nine points in the opening four minutes of the third to pull his side clear, a Javtokas slam was harsh while a three from Mantas Kalnietis was an early dagger.

Croatia called a timeout. Lithuania’s fans waved the giant state flag in triumph.

A 21-6 swing was the true statement of the third period. Lithuania had stamped their authority on the game and led 61-45, leading Croatia to need a miracle.

It never came.

“It was a really difficult game, first of all mentally, because we knew how important it was,” Maciulis said. “Both teams came into the game a bit scared maybe, but we were the first ones to get an advantage and we didn’t lose that lead until the end of the game.

“It is important for us, for our generation, now that most of the older guys have left the team, our generation has proved that we can play basketball and represent Lithuania too.”

Both teams took a few minutes to get going in a match-up that had perhaps the most intense atmosphere if you take away Slovenia’s games. Lithuania and Croatia matched each other to begin with; Maciulis gave Lithuania an early 4-2 lead, which was matched by Bogdanovic. Kalnietis equaled a three from Markota. As both sides looked to seize the moment.

Croatia brought on Dario Saric to annoy a red hot Kleiza, but to little success, he was quickly on two fouls, one of them with 3.5 seconds remaining. A silly mistake from the 19-year-old as the new Fenerbahce recruit gave Lithuania a 24-19 lead after one with 12 of the 24 points from Kleiza.

It was Kleiza again who drilled a three to extend the lead to eight, as Croatia’s coach Jasmin Repesa brought Saric away from his match-up assignment. Croatia battled away. Luka Zoric brought the scores level at 31-31 as he found a new lease of energy in a two-minute spell mid-way through the second. Valanciunas though came to the stage and his influence ensured Lithuania’s lead remained at the half.

The strong indication that it wouldn’t be Croatia’s day was an intended alley-oop pass from Kalnietis instead found its way to the basket. Croatia resorted to desperate three-point shooting. The lead for Lithuania, well into double-digits.

“I’d like to congratulate the Lithuanian team,” said Croatia’s Damir Markota. “They played a great game and shot the ball with a high percentage.”

Bojan Bogdanovic led Croatia with 15 points as they prepare for the bronze medal game; they’re first since 1995 against either France or Spain.

Photo courtesy of FIBA Europe