Vrenz Bleijenbergh carrying the torch at Oostende

2023-01-09T12:00:34+00:00 2023-01-09T11:51:51+00:00.

Giannis Askounis

09/Jan/23 12:00


Among the prominent examples of the Basketball Champions League ways, Filou Oostende constantly combining developing players with wins is nearing yet another berth in the Round of 16

By Johnny Askounis/ info@eurohoops.net

Every single team in the Basketball Champions League is a contender until proven otherwise. Far from simply sticking around, Filou Oostende including red-hot Vrenz Bleijenbergh is up 1-0 in the best-of-three series against Bahcesehir Koleji, looking into a home-court opportunity to advance to the next round. From there to go all the way to the Final Four, that’s the plan.

Bleijenbergh, 22, opened up to Eurohoops about gunning to extend the BCL campaign, working with Dario Gjergja, his career, and more.

Last week, Oostende went from a 19-point deficit to steal the home-court advantage from the Turkish outfit, the biggest comeback since Turk Telekom trailed by 19 points and beat Hapoel Jerusalem two years ago. The series switches to COREtec Dome and Game 2 is a clinching opportunity. And Bleijenbergh’s contribution in Game 1 delivering a career-high in rebounds was huge.

“He involved himself in every rebound in the last five minutes,” the Croatian-Belgian tactician praised his player during the postgame press conference in Istanbul.

“I have the ability to help the team with that,” Bleijenbergh told Eurohoops, “We knew we all should be involved in the rebounds. For me, it was one of the keys in this game and it paid off. They missed shots and we really controlled the boards.”

The international forward with Belgium, he previously grabbed 15 rebounds in Group D’s Gameday 6 to finish the Regular Season in style versus Hapoel Atsmon Holon. A total of 17 rebounds immediately reshaped his personal best at the senior level and were the most by any player in a single Champions League contest since David Kravish tallied 18 boards last February. Paired with 14 points behind 6/12 field goals generated a team-high efficiency rating of 21.

“I really focused on helping the team out in controlling the boards in the last two games. I think it was a big key in the last two games, but it is in the past and we got to look forward,” he explained focusing on the next challenges.

Oostende proudly sits among the lasting BCL original teams. Besides putting trust into young players and domestically extending the streak of Belgian league championships starting way back in 2012, head coach Gjergja’s side has been successful at the continental level as well. Making the Round of 16 is the ceiling reached in 2020 and 2022, last year by overcoming Igokea’s home-court advantage in the Play-Ins.

“We really want to go all the way to the end. We know we are Oostende,” expressed Bleijenbergh on the goal this season, “I think we have a really strong team, a deep team, everyone can make a difference. So, why can’t we make it to the end?”

“We are going step by step,” he added, “The win in Turkey is behind us. Now, we need to take care of the second win at home. Then we can go back into the groups, against three strong teams again. Possibly in the next round, we will need to take care of the home games and steal some away games. We will see. We don’t know what will happen.”

Even younger, before opting to join Oostende, he made his way to 24 BCL games as a member of his current side’s rival Telenet Giants Antwerp. In 2018-19, he chipped in 0.8 points and 1.2 rebounds per game over eight appearances as his former team qualified and also hosted the season-ending Final Four.

“It was a great success for Antwerp. We had a very strong team with players now in EuroLeague and the NBA. Why can’t we do the same with Oostende?” he drew parallels to Eurohoops. In an upgraded role, such an extended run would lead him to become a member of both Champions League Final Four runs of teams based in Belgium.

Growing into a key member of Antwerp by the end of the stint with his first professional team, Bleijenbergh moved on, went undrafted in 2021, played in Spain’s Liga Endesa with Coosur Real Betis, and in the 2022 NBA2K23 Summer League in Las Vegas with the Phoenix Suns.

“It was an important choice for me to go to Oostende,” he talked about his decision last offseason, “I had a rough season with ups and downs going to Spain, in my first year abroad. I just needed to have stabilization. I knew Oostende has a winning mentality like me. I also knew the coach because he is also my coach on the national team. It was a perfect option for me.”

“I really like the Champions League,” he commented on returning to FIBA’s club continental competition as well, “It’s really good for all the players to play at the European level, to show their skills.”

From key roles in all junior national teams of Belgium, Bleijenbergh moved into the senior national team in recent years. His international caps stretched into the 2022 EuroBasket.

“I am really looking forward to it. We have a lot of young talent coming up,” he answered Eurohoops about more action with the Lions, “I think the next five years will be really important to build as a team. If you stick together and have good work together in the summers, then you never know what can happen. The talent is there. We just need to work together.”

Guided by Gjergja, Belgium made it to the Round of 16 and was knocked out by Slovenia and Luka Doncic in last summer’s EuroBasket.

“We really want to take the next step. We are building on it now. We had a lot of veteran guys that made the first step for us,” added Bleijenbergh on the past and promising future of the Belgium national team, “Now, us as the new generation must take the next step.”

Staying on board with Gjergja, he became one of the key players in the 2022-23 Champions League campaign. Alongside Tre’Shawn Thurman, Pierre-Antoine Gillet, Haris Bratanovic, Breein Tyree, and Keye van der Vuurst de Vries, Bleijenbergh is one of the six players averaging a double-digit efficiency rating.

“This kid is a great talent. And if he breaks some barriers, he will be a very good player,” was the response of the experienced head coach to a question about his player after the win against Bahcesehir Koleji.

Himself talking to Eurohoops about his own future, Oostende is all he’s thinking about.

“I am not looking too far right now. I am just really focused on Oostende on the season, the Champions League, winning the title again with Oostende and the Cup,” Bleijenbergh said, “My future is really to focus on Oostende. And to work as hard as possible to get better as a player and as a person, and help Oostende win. From there, we will see what can happen in the future.”

Photo Credit: Basketball Champions League