By Antonis Stroggylakis / firstname.lastname@example.org
Jakarta, Indonesia – Guard Arturs Zagars was the last player of the Latvian national team to reach the mixed zone after the win over Brazil that got his squad to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in the history of the country.
“It’s crazy man. I probably don’t have words for it now,” an ecstatic Zagars said when asked by Eurohoops to simply describe his emotions. “I think I have to go to the locker room and understand what the hell just happened.”
Zagars and his teammates had at least some time to process the fact that Latvia has made it to the Top 8 of the World Championship since they dominated the second half vs. Brazil and took care of business early for a 104 – 84 victory. “We had a little time to gather our thoughts now thanks to this big lead,” Davis Bertans had said to Eurohoops some moments earlier. “The emotions weren’t as high as in the game against France.”
Zagars is almost eight years younger than Bertans and he just couldn’t hide his sheer enthusiasm. He didn’t care to really. After all, we are talking about history being made.
“Top 8 is huge for this country. A small country with a big heart as I said before,” mentioned Zagars. With an estimated population of 1,9 million, Latvia is the smallest country to reach the World Cup quarterfinals. “Obviously we got to be happy for what we did.”
At least for a couple of hours. Tomorrow, the Latvian national team will fly to Manila, Philippines to continue this magical journey with no end.
“After 12, 1′ o’clock tonight we have to forget this victory and focus on our next opponent. There comes a point when you have to forget what happened and you have to see what’s next.”
Zagars, a free agent after spending the previous season in Lithuania with Nevezis, has been one of the revelations not only for the Latvian national team this summer but of the entire FIBA World Cup.
Born in 2000, the undrafted in 2022 Zagars joined Latvia for the first time in a major international tournament and turned heads very quickly. In the upset against France, he was his team’s leading scorer and passer with 22 points plus five assists in a star performance against such players as veteran NBAers Evan Fournier, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Gobert or EuroLeague great Nando De Colo.
Zagars, a much young player and debutant in this kind of fierce competition where experience sometimes makes a huge difference, was a main responsible for mighty France getting eliminated.
He didn’t stop there. Tonight against Brazil, he posted 17 points on 5-7 from the field to help his team advance to the next stage.
These performances also served as answers to those who doubted that Latvia has enough backcourt quality for a decent run in the World Cup, since guards Janis Strelnieks and Rihards Lomazs were out due to injuries.
But Zagars has shut down doubters beautifully, with winning results of the highest order. He feels that he and his teammate like Kristers Zoriks are responding in style to everyone who questioned if they have the chops to carry the team and can rise up to the challenge of a World Championship.
“Me and Kristers… we heard a lot of talk,” Zagars said. “Things like… ‘Oh they don’t have small guys, they don’t have point guards.’ Or… ‘their main point guard is out.’ So we had to step up and prove that we belong here at the highest stage and against high-level players. And I think we’re doing this.”
Giving answers feels great but Zagars doesn’t feel satisfied yet. “As Kobe said: Job’s not finished,” he said with a smile.
Zagars cited Zoriks as another player who is getting baptized in fire for Latvia in the World Cup. The new Petkim guard had a key contribution in the fourth quarter of the crucial comeback win over Spain, with nine out of his 11 points in the final period.
This team has been finding new protagonists in every game really. Roland Smits was a partner in crime to Zagars vs. France with 20 points. Against Brazil, Andrejs Grazulis emerged as a leader with 24 points and five assists.
“That’s one of the most dangerous weapons as well,” Zagars said. “Anybody can go off on any game. Can score or make plays or whatever. Offensively and defensively. I think we had a different Player of the game on every win we had. That shows a lot about our team versatility.”
Photo: FIBA Basketball