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U19 World Cup gone Zag-mad: Gonzaga quintet take over Heraklion
HERAKLION (Greece) - There are 16 countries present at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2019, but the most interested community following the global spectacle in Heraklion may be Zag Nation - the supporters of Gonzaga University.
Three of the four Quarter-Finals showdowns feature star players who are either already playing US college basketball for the Gonzaga Bulldogs - more affectionately known as the Zags - or will be in the future. And two of the games have stars of their teams facing off against future Gonzaga teammates.
Serbian star Filip Petrusev played his freshman season at Gonzaga last year alongside France guard Joel Ayayi. Lithuanian Martynas Arlauskas will be joining that duo this up-coming season along with Mali big man Oumar Ballo while Puerto Rico wing Julian Strawther has committed to join Gonzaga starting in 2020.
Ayayi's game for a spot in the top four will not have any other Gonzaga connection. But Petrusev and Arlauskas will face off in one of the Quarter-Finals while in an another it will be Ballo and Strawther battling for Zags bragging rights - not to mention a chance for history. The winning country between Mali and Puerto Rico will register its best-ever showing at the U19 World Cup.
"I ALREADY PLAYED TWO GONZAGA PLAYERS, I'M DOWN 0-2, SO I CAN'T GO DOWN 0-3. I GOTTA GET THAT WIN AGAINST MALI."
This will actually be the third time that Strawther is going at it against a future Zags teammate, losing with Puerto Rico against Serbia and Petrusev and France with Ayayi.
"I already played two Gonzaga players, I’m down 0-2, so I can't go down 0-3. I gotta get that win against Mali," Strawther said.
When asked about facing a fellow future Zags, Ballo said: "I know we will face them. I am ready for them. Those guys are my brothers and I am happy for them because they play really good. Gonzaga is like a family and all of us are playing good. I'm really happy."
.@OumarBallo32 has more than made up for missing @BasketMalien's 🇲🇱 first two games at the #FIBAU19, averaging 17.5 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 4 blocks across his two appearances, whilst helping his side make history! 💪💪💪 pic.twitter.com/JzLfIJ6Con— FIBA (@FIBA) July 4, 2019
Playing good is actually putting it rather mildly.
Petrusev (20.3ppg), Strawther (20.3ppg), Ayayi (20.0ppg) and Ballo (17.5ppg) are in the top 8 in scoring; Ballo is tops in rebounds (12.0rpg) and Petrusev fifth (9.8rpg); Ayayi is second in steals (3.0spg); Ballo is tied for the lead in blocks (4.0bpg) and Petrusev is tied for 4th (2.3bpg); and Ballo leads in efficiency per game (31.5) while Petrusev is second (29.3) and Ayayi is fifth (20.3).
Martynas Arlauskas will finally face off against a future Gonzaga teammate for the first time at the 2019 U19 World Cup against Serbia - and big man Filip Petrusev
And the Zags have been doing it against each other.
Petrusev dropped 23 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 blocks against Strawther and Puerto Rico - with Strawther picking up 22 points and 6 rebounds - before beating France and Ayayi with 18 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks.
Before the big France v Serbia game for first place in Group D, Ayayi, who had 33 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals against Petrusev's team, said: "We both have to be locked in and ready to kill - even though I hope he's not gonna kill us."
The Quarter-Finals showdown with Serbia will be Arlauskas' first chance to face a future Zags teammate. But it will be another chance for Petrusev to get Gonzaga bragging rights.
"It's great. Those are my boys, we will all play together eventually. That's huge for the program. It just shows how much they value the international players and puts Gonzaga on the map, puts international players on the map. It's just great for everyone," Petrusev said.
After having already played Strawther and Ayayi, Petrusev still has a chance to play the other future Zags teammate - and maybe in the Final as Ballo and Mali are on the other half of the bracket.
One thing is certain - two Gonzaga players will reach the Semi-Finals, driving Zag Nation even more crazy while the supporters of the 16 countries in Heraklion watch on.