It was loud, it was tense, but only one side could make it to the championship game as Cinderella squared off with Goliath. In the end Fenerbahce stood tall at the Final Four to book their place in the Euroleague title game for 2018. Emmet Ryan reports from the Stark Arena in Belgrade
This was a physical war from the off as Fener looked to impose their front court power. The victory however would come through the arms of the smallest man on their roster as Bobby Dixon proved the hero.
Brad Wanamaker is an objectively good basketball player but in this one he wanted to remind everyone that he’s an aggressive baller. From the off he was getting his body everywhere. Wanamaker was flat out looking for traffic as he moved for two early buckets and defensively he was moving with far more fluidity than you’d imagine from a man with such a sculpted frame. In a battering opening 5 minutes he was the bruiser while Ahmet Duvieroglu was the elegant big on D as they shut down Zalgiris. While scoring was slow, it was all coming from Fenerbahce as they held the Kaunas club to just one score from the line before Sarunas Jasikevicius called in his troops midway through the first frame.
The break calmed Zalgiris. This was their first trip to the big show since 1999. They got more focused on offence, not trying to force things, as they went back to playing their game and not letting Fener force a brawl down their throats.
Bobby Dixon aka Ali Muhammed had checked in for Wanamaker to give a spark to Fener’s speed. Everybody knows what Dixon is going to do, the challenge is in doing anything about it. He got off the mark from deep quickly and just kept moving. Fener went with a full switch on the floor, looking to keep their guys in better shape to gas Zalgiris through this one. Gigi Datome for three and another timeout forced from Saras. It was a different tone this time however, he’d got his guys back in the game mentally. At the end of the first Fenerbahce led 17-13.
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Oh my Gigi. A couple of quick scores from the Italian, including one from deep, and Fener were already bringing a whole lot of heat on Zalgiris again to start the second frame. With Duvieroglu still doing work, Fener were getting the help they wanted from all parts of the floor. A Kostas Sloukas slip inside was enough to force Saras to go back to the drawing board.
Zero threes, 12 turnovers, yet somehow Zalgiris wouldn’t go away. Having lived off scraps from Kevin Pangos for most of the night, they finally got some help from Brandon Davies as the ate away once again. Fener managed to break double digits briefly but an Aaron White dunk on the buzzer meant there were just 6 points between the sides at the break.
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There was a feeling that a run was coming from Zalgiris. The opening few possessions broke their way nicely but making something out of them was proving a challenge. Despite having the upper hand, now it was the men in green having trouble making much of it.
A contested three from Wanamaker put Fener back out with breathing room. This opening salvos were meant to be the shot for Zalgiris but here were Zoc’s charges just calmly taking care of business. It was reminiscent of the championship game last year, where it was when Fenerbahce eased off that they started to really pound Olympiacos on the scoreboard.
Fener just kept forcing stops and turnovers. It was easy for Jan Vesely and Nikola Kalinic to take advantage. Zalgiris finally got their first three of the night with 4.01 left in the third, through Edgaras Ulanovas. It was enough to give us that famed cherry red face on Zeljko Obradovic but his counterpart on the opposite bench looked more frustrated.
Pangos hit a sweet little bullet pass to Antansas Kavaliauskas and suddenly Zalgiris were alive again. The lead drawn back to a manageable level again and the fans in green were alive. The game was becoming more broken, a little looser, exactly what Zalgiris needed. A Pangos three and it’s a two point game.
Out of the timeout and made two quick buckets but Zalgiris were right in it as Fener held a 54-50 lead entering the final 10 minutes.
Dixon from deep and the Fener fans were in raptures. The man who had been their tormentor in the 2015 Turkish playoffs has long since become a guy they look to when Fenerbahce need a boost. Dixon has seen it all in his career, constantly doubted but always calling his own number. Another three and the double digit lead is restored. Nik Melli inside and Fenerbahce had weathered the storm. Dixon got in one more score before taking a well-earned seat as Wanamaker re-entered.
Duvieroglu hadn’t seen much action since the middle of the second quarter but Obradovic turned to him again to lock things down defensively. Instead he looked cold and stumbled into a couple of fouls before getting quickly pulled again.
Once more Zalgiris were under the gun, once more they responded. The one thing Zalgiris never lost in this game was their belief. Fener could onload on them physically, they could run big for a while, but the green side simply wouldn’t kneel. To win, Fener had to truly see them off.
Back came Dixon to steer Fener home. A jumper pushed it out again. Even defensively, far from his strong suit, he was bringing the hustle. Mission accomplished, a third straight title game for Fenerbahce and a shot at back to back titles.
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