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Pride Talent Comes From Far Away

By By Ed Morrone

Not many people know too much about Lithuania. It's a country of about four million people that lies in Eastern Europe on the coast of the Baltic Sea. It would normally be something we wouldn't give a second thought to, but with three players from Lithuania on the Pride men's basketball team and another one on the way next year, it's difficult not to take notice.Aurimas Kieza, Arminas Urbutis and Zygis Sestokas take up three spots on the Pride's 14-man roster, and each plays a different role on the team. The senior Kieza is in his fourth year on the Pride, and as one of the team's four seniors (three if you disregard guard Gibran Washington, who will graduate later this month), he is relied on to lead the younger players. At 6-foot-8, he is also counted on for rebounding and inside play, something the team lacks at certain junctures. Urbutis is a 6-foot-8 freshman swingman, meaning he can score from the perimeter, go down low and get rebounds as well. Tall, skinny and soft-spoken, the Pride is hoping he develops into the dangerous all-around player Kieza has become.Sestokas, also a freshman, is a 6-foot-5 deadeye shooter who can knock down any shot if the opposing defender is foolish enough to give him space to shoot. All three of these players are crucial to the team's success despite the fact that one is a senior starter and the others are freshmen that will help the team off the bench. Nevertheless, Kieza's solid play has started an influx of Lithuanian influence that will continue in the program over the next four or five years."I think it just happened that these guys are all from Lithuania," said associate head coach Tom Parrotta, who handles the majority of the team's scouting. "It just so happened that he [Kieza] was a very good player on a very good team and when you have a guy like that, you just try to milk it as much as you can."Kieza has evolved into a question mark when he first arrived at the University to one of its most successful and important players. A graduate of the Florida Air Academy in Melbourne, Fla., Kieza is averaging career highs of 8.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in the first six games of his senior season. But even more important is his leadership and guidance of Sestokas and Urbutis, who have had an easier time adjusting with him here to help."It helps because sometimes if you don't understand what you need to do then he can explain it," said Sestokas, who holds the North Carolina high school record with 76 points in a game. "He's really helpful and we're helping each other get better."It's especially helpful that Sestokas and Urbutis have Kieza to lean on, because they both have been placed into a high-pressure situation where they are expected to contribute immediately. They aren't being asked to contribute right away-they have to, especially if the Pride wants to build on its successful 21-9 season last year, in which it pushed Old Dominion to the brink in the CAA Tournament Semifinals. With a thin bench, Sestokas and Urbutis, along with the rest of the freshman crop, have to learn on the fly."It is an adjustment, it really is," Parrotta said. "The physical aspect of things and how hard you have to work, it takes awhile to get used to it. They'll be good players because they both work very hard, but there will be growing pains. It's hard to grow up so quickly."It's tough, but Sestokas and Urbutis are not making any excuses for themselves. They're averaging just 3.2 points combined through the first two games, but they are taking the experience in stride and are confident that success will come with hard work."I came here to play basketball and get a good education," Sestokas said. "It's been real fun, especially during game time. It's something special with the crowd and the fans. I love it.""It's definitely been an adjustment," Urbutis added. "But we're getting better, and it's been easier because we have each other."Above all, they have Kieza to help get them through it all. When he graduates later this year, they'll be able to take what they learned from him and bestow this knowledge on Mantas Leonavicius, a fellow Lithuanian who is currently a senior at Sestokas' alma mater and will be joining the Pride next fall."Ziggy is a tireless worker and there's not many guys like Arminas who can run for days like he can," Parrotta said. "I think all three of them will take this experience and go back to Europe to play basketball, but they will have a solid education, which will provide a lot of opportunities for them."Head coach Tom Pecora added: "They are a pleasure to coach and are great kids who work hard every day to get better. They're just great guys."It has been quite a journey thus far for Kieza, Sestokas and Urbutis, but it's a journey that is just beginning. The Pride has high aspirations for this season, and all three of these guys will play integral roles in getting there. If this team has any chance against Old Dominion, VCU, UNC Wilmington and the other talented teams in the conference, it will need contributions out of each of these players."Every kid back in Lithuania dreams of being able to get a good education and play college basketball," Kieza said. "We're all really good friends and we're going to help each other out on the court."

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