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Crvena Zvezda have unfinished business in return to NIJT finals

REGENSBURG (David Hein’s Eye on the Future) - Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Telekom Belgrade have a bit of unfinished business on their minds as they return to the finals of the Nike International Junior Tournament after winning the NIJT qualifying event in Belgrade in convincing fashion.

Dusan Ristic was named MVP of the February 22-24 Belgrade tournament and was joined on the All-Tournament team by teammate Nikola Rebic as Red Star Belgrade, for the third straight year, reached the NIJT finals - which will be played at the Euroleague Final Four in London in May.

Red Star are the final team to qualify for the NIJT finals along with defending champions Lietuvos Rytas of Lithuania (who won the Siauliai NIJT event); KK Spars Sarajevo of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Torneo Citta di Roma NIJT); and Spanish side FIATC Joventut Badalona (Ciutat de L'Hospitalet NIJT). The other four teams in the eight-team field will receive wild card invitations awarded by Euroleague Basketball - the first of which having already been given to Team England's U18 national team.

Red Star stormed to the Belgrade title with a 5-0 record and a 36.4 point winning margin. After wins of 54 points, 42 and 39, the Serbian side had their only close game in the Semi-Finals against France's National Institute of Sport (INSEP). The final score was 79-64, but it really wasn't that close as Belgrade led 66-41 after three quarters.

In the final, Red Star blasted past city rivals Mega Vizura 88-56 one day after beating them 83-44 in group play. Ristic, who had 21 points and 7 rebounds in the decider, finished second in the tournament in scoring (18.6ppg) and rebounding (9.4 rpg) to take the MVP trophy.

Ristic, Rebic and five of their teammates - Petar Vorkapic, Marko Guduric, Brano Dukanovic, Djordje Kaplanovic and Marko Tejic - will be looking for a bit of revenge when they reach London. In last year's NIJT finals in Istanbul, Red Star beat Barcelona by nine points and Anadolu Efes by 21 points before losing 105-69 to eventual champions Lietuvos Rytas in the final group game to miss out on a chance to reach the title game.

There is some unfinished business to settle from that game as Rebic and Tejic each shot 0-6 from three-point range and Dukanovic went 3-8 from inside the arc while also committing four turnovers. Ristic was one of the few Red Star players to have a productive game, shooting 10-17 from the field with 21 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks though he also committed four turnovers.

It's not hard to imagine that the first thing Red Star players will do when the NIJT finals schedule comes out is to see if and when they get to face off against Lietuvos Rytas again.

A win over Rytas - and of course more importantly taking the NIJT title - would be a huge step for Ristic and co. But Ristic, Rebic and Dukanovic have already made good on one bitter mark in their career.

That trio along with Guduric, Tejic and Kaplanovic were the leaders of the Serbia national team that finished a disappointing ninth at the U16 European Championship in 2011 - the nation’s worst U16 showing since beginning play as Serbia in 2007 after its time as Serbia & Montenegro. Serbia won 2007 U16 gold, collected bronze in 2009 and 2012 and finished fifth in 2008 and 2010.

But that sextet has that stain on their record.

Ristic, Rebic and Dukanovic redeemed themselves to Serbia fans a bit last summer as they helped take bronze at the 2012 U18 European Championship - the country’s fifth top four finish in six summers as Serbia.

Red Star’s 1997-born Stefan Lazarevic helped restore U16 pride for Serbia in collecting 6.1 points, a team-best 10.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks in taking the bronze medal.

The summer and further balsam for the Serbian national team soul can wait, first Red Star have some unfinished business to deal with.

David Hein


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