Star Turn: Saulius Stombergas, UNICS Kazan

Feb 24, 2021 by Print
Star Turn: Saulius Stombergas, UNICS Kazan

Saulius Stombergas was one of the great small forwards of his generation. After years of excellence in the EuroLeague, which included winning the 1999 title with Zalgiris Kaunas, he took his chance to shine in the EuroCup, which was then known as the ULEB Cup. Stombergas played the competition during two different stints with the same team, UNICS Kazan, and was close to making history in 2007.

What came before

Stombergas started his career with Atletas Kaunas of his native Lithuania. After a year in China, playing for Shanghai Sharks, he made history with Zalgiris Kaunas. Stombergas led Zalgiris to a pair of continental titles. First came the 1998 Saporta Cup after he scored 35 points in the championship game against Olimpia Milan. Then he helped Zalgiris capture the 1999 EuroLeague crown; Zalgiris beat Virtus Bologna 74-82 in the championship game and Stombergas had 12 points.

Stombergas went on to play for Virtus, with which he reached the 2000 Saporta Cup final, and also played for Tau Ceramica Vitoria-Gasteiz, Efes Pilsen Istanbul, again Zalgiris, UNICS and Ulker Istanbul. Stombergas helped Tau reach the EuroLeague Finals in 2001 and famously hit 9-of-9 three-point shots in a semifinals game against AEK Athens. Twenty years later, that remains the best three-point shooting night in EuroLeague history. He helped Lithuania win a EuroBasket gold medal in 2003, a silver in 1995 and Olympic bronze medals in Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000. In Athens 2004, Stombergas had the honor of being the flag bearer for Team Lithuania.

EuroCup experience

Stombergas made his ULEB Cup debut with UNICS against Portuguese side Queluz Sintra Patrimonio Mundial on November 8, 2005, with 2 points and a PIR of 7 in a 97-60 victory. UNICS finished the regular season in first place with a 9-1 record, in part thanks to Stombergas's brilliant performances in some of his team's most critical games. He had 13 points against FMP Belgrade, 15 against Besiktas Istanbul and 23 on 5-of-7 three-point shooting against Etosa Alicante. Once in the eighthfinals against Virtus Roma, Stombergas averaged 14.5 points and 5.5 rebounds. Virtus Roma, led by Dejan Bodiroga, swept the series and eliminated the Russian powerhouse.

UNICS returned to the EuroCup for the 2006-07 campaign and Stombergas played much better, averaging 14.6 points in 16 games. His 58.5% three-point shooting (31 of 53) ranks 11th on the all-time list and is UNICS's single-season club record. He was especially unstoppable in the regular season when he buried 23 of 32 shots from downtown (71.9% 3FG). He had a EuroCup career-high PIR of 38 in a 100-94 overtime home win against Real Madrid, in which Stombergas scored 29 points on near-perfect shooting (8 of 8 2FG, 3 of 4 3FG, 4 of 4 FT), 7 rebounds and 5 assists. UNICS eliminated Hemofarm Vrsac in the eighthfinals and Montepaschi Siena in the quarterfinals to set up a meeting with Real in the two-game, total-points semifinals. UNICS led 72-52 with 4 minutes left in the first leg, but Real closed the gap to 76-69 after 40 minutes and then thrashed the Russian powerhouse 84-63 in the second leg to qualify for the championship game and eventually win the title. Stombergas struggled in that series, averaging 7.0 points and 4.5 rebounds versus Los Blancos.

Stombergas returned home to play for Naglis-Adakris Palanga, but decided to rejoin UNICS before the 2009-10 campaign, in what would be his final season as a player. He averaged 5.4 points in 12 games and his team did not go past the Last 16, that season's second group stage. Stombergas ended up playing 40 EuroCup career games, in which he averaged 10.9 points and made 48.0% of his three-point shots (71 of 148) to rank fifth all-time in the competition in accuracy from beyond the arc.

What came after

Stombergas retired from playing professional basketball at the end of that season and started his coaching career in Zalgiris's youth system. He started coaching the Zalgiris-Arvydas Sabonis school's squad before he was promoted to the first team as an assistant coach. Stombergas was briefly Zalgiris's head coach during the 2013-14 season, but left in April 2014. He also coached the Lithuanian U18 national team from 2013 to 2016 and helped it win a bronze medal at the 2015 U18 European Championships. He was born on the same day - December 14, 1973 - as two other EuroCup stars: Pat Burke, who reached the 2004 ULEB Cup final with Real, and Nebojsa Bogavac, who made it to the 2005 semifinals with Hemofarm.