How 3x3 powerhouse Liman overcame a frustrating season to win World Tour Final 2021
MIES (Switzerland) - After being upset again by Jeddah to disappointingly limp out of the Mexico City Masters at the quarter finals, powerhouse Liman were staring down the barrel of the unimaginable.
The Serbs, who along with rivals Novi Sad and Riga had formed part of 3x3's 'Big Three', won eight titles on the FIBA 3x3 World Tour in the past four seasons but were winless in the 2021 regular season.
Their dejected players knew something was needed ahead of the World Tour Final in Jeddah, - the showpiece 3x3 event they had never won and where Liman had lost in a heartbreak 12 months ago.
"It was a bitter taste in our mouth. We wanted to show who we are," star Aleksandar Ratkov said about their loss to Riga in the Jeddah Final 2020 where Nauris Miezis hit the buzzer beater.
These warriors, who famously won the Debrecen Masters 2019 without a sub, went down to work and punished themselves with gruelling workouts in one last determined effort to end 2021 on a high.
They trained five days per week for one and a half months in their most intense workouts of the season.
"We wanted to practice the hardest we can," big man Mihailo Vasic said. "That was important."
It was desperately needed to regain some morale after a season where they unexpectedly fell a level just as the World Tour's depth of talent grew. And they weren't quite prepared for the improved competition with Ratkov and Vasic focusing on the opportunity of a lifetime of representing Serbia at the Tokyo Olympics.
"I was physically exhausted and we didn't have time to practice together," Ratkov said.
They had struggled to breakthrough and an upset by Jeddah in the Prague Masters final was the closest they got to silverware. "We were thinking 'what are we doing wrong?' It was hard but we never doubted our team," Ratkov said.
Even though it was a regular season of frustration, Liman had been encouraged by the play of ex-Jeddah player Nebojsa Kilijan, who had replaced Amsterdam Talent & Pro recruit Maksim Kovacevic.
The 26-year-old Serb found himself a key part of the team after an injury to former number one 3x3 player in the world Stefan Stojacic in Doha and he repaid the faith.
"He was the right part of our puzzle, he's persistent and you know he will give his best," Ratkov said of Kilijan.
There was pressure on Liman heading into Jeddah but their demanding preparation paid off immediately when they suffocated in-form Gagarin to just 10 points in their tournament opener.
It paved the way for Liman to return to their defensive best as they limited opponents to 15 points or less in all five games bar one en route to the title after knocking off Gagarin again, 21-14 in a dominant performance in the final
"We are the best defensive team by far. When we play defense (like that) then it is very hard for us to be beaten," Vasic said. "We won this tournament through defense."
In an ominous warning, Liman feel like they can get even stronger as a new season approaches. "(3x3 is a) game of deception. It's hard to predict and you have to read what is going on in the court," said Ratkov, who became a father last year. "We are improving and we can be better. It's not about one guy, it's about the team."
As the confetti fell in Jeddah with Liman finally unleashing 12 months of pent up frustration, they celebrated passionately knowing they were still at the top of the 3x3 tree.
"After all these years, we did this (win the World Tour Final)...finally," said sharpshooter Stefan Kojic noting that Liman only started being fully professional 3x3 players in 2019 when they spent the entire year, training in China.
"I screamed... it was pure emotion and great to be on the court with my guys," Ratkov said. "I will remember this the rest of my life."
With those memories set in stone for life, Liman will be out to make new ones in 2022.