Lithuanian trio inspire Soviet basketball team to gold

By the time Russia took on Yugoslavia in the gold medal match at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, they could have been forgiven for thinking battle had already been won.

Russia earned their place in the final after one of the most eagerly awaited rematches in Summer Games history, which culminated in an 82-76 victory over the United States.

Sixteen years earlier in Munich, Russia beat the USA to gold amid some of the most controversial scenes ever seen at the Games.

Time had run down at the end of the match with the United States leading 50-49, a melee of jubilant team members and coaches flooding the court in celebration.

However the officials, facing vocal protests from the U.S. team and crowd alike, decided to add three seconds to the clock following an overlooked late Russian timeout.

Still seemingly chasing a hopeless cause, the Russians hurled a long pass forward which Sasha Belov skilfully collected, before barging past two defenders and netting the decisive two points. Pandemonium ensued, and the repercussions were immediate.

U.S pride was still bruised when they faced their Cold War foes once again in Seoul’s Jamsil Gymnasium for a place in the 1988 final.

The Americans, under coach John Thompson, were the favourites after cruising through the qualifying stages without defeat, but once again the Red Machine proved too strong in the semi-finals.

Yugoslavia lay in wait in the gold medal contest. They had a superior head-to-head record against the Russians but often fell short on the big occasion.

For many players the memory of the narrow defeat in the 1986 world championship semi was still raw.

So it proved again with the Soviet side running out 76-63 winners on the back of a late surged inspired by the Lithuanian trio of Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis and Rimas Kurtinaitis.

The US, however, didn’t indulge in prolonged navel-gazing.

They have since reigned supreme with gold medals in four of the next five Summer Games, including the 1992 Dream Team in Barcelona featuring Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley.

Though unquestionably the finest basketball-playing nation of recent generations, the agony of the defeats in 1972 and 1988 linger long in the American memory banks.