World Cup Qualifiers wins motivate Kriisa, up-and-coming Estonia
TALLINN (Estonia) - Estonia pulled off four victories in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers including one over mighty Serbia. And those wins are proving a real motivation to Kerr Kriisa and the country's other young talents looking for a top-three finish at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2019, Division B.
The Estonian senior team won at home in the European Qualifiers against Great Britain, Israel and Serbia and also grabbed a road victory over Georgia last February.
"The wins were great. It proved a lot that we are moving to right direction as a country," said Kriisa, who will be one of the leaders of Estonia's team in Oradea.
All the more impressive in Estonia beating Serbia 71-70 in Tallinn was that the team included the trio of 19-year-olds Kristian Kullamae, Sander Raieste and Kaspar Treier to go with 18-year-old Henri Drell - with the quartet combining for 25 points, 7 rebounds, 10 assists, 4 steals and 1 block.
"To beat Serbia having young guys like Kullamae, Drell, Raieste and Treier being a huge part of it is something special. It motivates us all because we know that if we keep working hard then the opportunity is waiting for us also to play there one day," Kriisa said.
Sander Raieste, Kristian Kullamae and Henri Drell (from left to right) already had a big moment for the Estonian senior national team as teenagers.
The 6ft 3in (1.89m) point guard is a big part of the country’s future along with that quartet and U18 teammates such as Kaspar Kitsing. And the Estonian federation recently came up with an ambitious strategy plan for 2019 to 2030 in which it hopes the senior national team can play at the FIBA EuroBasket 2021; reach the top eight at FIBA EuroBasket 2025; qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2027; and be a contender for the 2028 Men's Olympic Basketball Tournament - goals Kriisa likes to see.
"The aims have to be high, otherwise there is no point to even do anything," he said. "But I think it's better to take it year by year and we will see where we end up."
Kriisa already has a special spot in Estonia's basketball laurels - both because of his name and his performance on the court. His father Valmo Kriisa played for Estonia's national teams from 1995 to 2011 and only retired from professional basketball in 2017 after 24 years of playing.
But the younger Kriisa, who got to play against his then 42-year-old father in the Estonian league in February 2017 at the age of 16 on the country's 99th birthday, also helped the country remain in the Division A in its first-ever appearance at the FIBA U16 European Championship in 2016, beating Greece and 2015 U16 champions Bosnia and Herzegovina to finish 13th to send those two countries plus hosts Poland to Division B.
Kerr Kriisa collected 14 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in sending Greece to Division B at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2016.
In 2017, Kriisa and Estonia beat Germany in the Classification 9-16 to stave off relegation yet again and despite grabbing just the one victory finished 12th.
After not playing last summer, Kriisa makes the jump this summer to the U18 level.
"It's a little different and you can’t really expect anything. Even if it’s Division B we don't expect it to be easy. It's still high-level competition," said Kriisa, who moved in the summer of 2018 to Lithuanian giants Zalgiris Kaunas.
Estonia go into the FIBA U18 European Championship 2019, Division B knowing third place will be enough to get to Division A - something that was not the case the last two summers as Latvia and Greece were the early designated hosts for the U18 Division A tournaments in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Estonia hosted the 2017 Division B event and finished third but could not be promoted as Latvia finished last in the Division A so only two teams were promoted. The same thing happened last summer as Greece finished 14th in the Division A but could not be relegated, meaning only two teams would go up and Estonia were playing in the Third Place Game.
Henri Drell (No. 11) and Estonia lost to Great Britain in the FIBA U18 European Championship 2017, Division B Semi-Finals - missing out on a chance to be promoted to Division A.
"Two times in a row our national teams went for a bronze medal knowing that even if they succeed we wouldn’t get the spot in Division A. I don't think that we should focus about this right now. We just have to keep doing our thing and then we’ll see if we make it that far," Kriisa said.
But the Estonians definitely aim to finish in the top three and get back to the Division A at the U18 level for the first time since 2008. The U16 team will be playing Division A for the fourth time in a row later this summer while the U20 group last played in the Division A in 2013.
"A Division A spot for our country is massive. We are a small country and our basketball culture is not that big compared to some countries. But we keep trying to get there," Kriisa said. "I hope we can step up in this tournament and secure a place for our next guys."
Kriisa and co. have been motivated by the age group just ahead of them at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers. This will be their chance to motivate the next level of Estonia's talent.