It was a thriller out of nowhere as Tony Meier’s late three sent a cracker of a clash in Bologna to overtime while a 15 year old Greek showed signs of promise. Emmet Ryan was in the PalaDozza as Virtus eventually got over the line against a game Promitheas Patras in the last round of the Basketball Champions League
The only matter to be decided going into this one was whether Promitheas would get a third or fourth seed for the playoff draw on Friday. It was already an extraordinary season for a club in its first ever year in European competition after only three years in the top flight in Greece.
Their opponents couldn’t be more different. One of the most storied clubs in the sport, Virtus have twice lifted Europe’s top prize, along with a Cup Winners Cup and Eurochallenge title, and sit second only to Olimpia Milano for Serie A titles. There is a touch of the phoenix to this outfit however, relegated in 2016 after a slow and painful fall, they bounced back at the first attempt to win the Serie A2 championship and this season’s BCL campaign marks their first European adventure since that 2009 Eurochallenge* triumph.
*There’s a story here around a single trophy that tells plenty about everything to do with the odd politics in European basketball. The trophy for Eurochallenge was the same as the Euroleague when the latter was under FIBA’s control. That trophy would also serve as the one used for the lone season of the FIBA Suproleague, I’ll get into all this at a later date, and the Euroleague that Virtus won in 2001 had a trophy that looked like a dime store rip off of the NCAA title. Not that we’re finished with the original trophy by any stretch, no no, that is still active to this day as the trophy for the FIBA Europe Cup (FEC). That was the spiritual successor to Eurochallenge, then the BCL sort of became that but got its own shiny new trophy. There’s some dispute over whether the BCL is the second or third tier competition, with most observers seeing it as the latter, but the FEC is the fourth tier for sure. Either way, the trophy is basketball’s version of the big gold belt only with a longer and somehow more complicated history.
Oh, yes, the game. Virtus fans knew this wasn’t a big one and it showed in the crowd. The start time, 6.30pm local, didn’t help but it does mean FIBA gets two clear TV windows alongside their 8.30pm slot so they are learning from UEFA at delivering blocks of content. Still, safe for the sea of black that had the hardcore end about 75 per cent full, there were plenty of empty seats. The hard camera side in particular looked toothy, making the crowd appear far sparser than it was in reality.
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Ah Brian Qvale, a man with a name designed to be butchered by anglophones even though he’s American. He’s been a mainstay of teams that are solid but not quite title threatening throughout his professional career and, despite that description, is somehow in only his first season in Italy. His move inside slowed an early run for the visitors and then Kevin Punter, yet another import guard who wears 0 because #Underrated put Virtus ahead for the first time on the night from deep. His effort at a breakaway dunk was blocked by Octavius Ellis but Alessandro Pajola got the score on the putback and the place was in full song in no time.
Another score by Qvale and you’d forget that Virtus really had nothing at stake here nor were half the seats empty. The drums were banging, the singing wasn’t stopping, and at least one fan who looked old enough to remember their run to the semi finals of the Champions Cup in 1961 was joining right in throughout.
With a couple of players out for Promitheas, there was a start and extended minutes for Lefteris Mantzoukas. He’d played all of a minute in the campaign to date and is anything but your regular teenager to look at. The height, 6’8″, doesn’t begin to tell the story. He is not a slight boy, already showing signs of filling out and could easily be confused with a player four or five years older to look at. The kid got his first points of the campaign as the Greek club showed it really wasn’t intimidated in a free flowing first quarter. A Nikos Gkikas three on the buzzer meant Virtus were only 25-23 up after 10 minutes.
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The Virtus line-up has some really curious cases on it. Amath M’Baye went to place NCAA ball with Wyoming, then transferred to Oklahoma, before going pro in Japan. He’s been in Italy since, getting a rocket up his ass to Milano last year which was probably too soon and he’s settled back here. Contrast that with Punter, who has been on a clear gradual but northwards trajectory since leaving Tennessee. Last season he won this competition with AEK Athens, Virtus can pay him more and give him more exposure to potentially more affluent suitors. Then there’s Pietro Aradori, a lifer in Serie A save for a season split between Turkey and Spain who was at a Euroleague Final Four back in 2011 and is still only 30.
The mixed bag of talents was being given a real game here as despite pushing a hard pace, they couldn’t shake the visitors. Mantzoukas was still in there two, not taking a breather and looking like he belonged comfortably at this level against some players who are literally twice his age.
A Punter three got a huge roar, he drew an and-one in the process, to give Virtus their first two possession lead in quite a while. The tail end of the half showed the touch more depth at the disposal of the Bologna side, with the first signs of fatigue showing in Promitheas. Still, they kept their heads enough to remain relevant and naturally the kid looked absolutely bubbling with energy. He missed a chance to add to his haul with a weak shot inside close to the buzzer but Promitheas were still in touch, only trailing 52-46 at the break.
This arena’s seen a lot over the years. All the way back in 1966, Milano won the Champions Cup here against Slavia Prague in front of around 8,000. The capacity is down to under 6,000 these days but it feels bigger, that’s good design. Seeing Mantzoukas become the season’s youngest scorer in BCL won’t go down as one of its all-time moments but it’s another note in the long history of Il Madison. Save for the Cup Winners Cup title, it wasn’t even the home for Virtus during their big European triumphs. They came back here for their return to Serie A, rejoining arch-rivals Fortitudo in sharing a home.
M’Baye got things going again to start the third from deep. Those hints of fatigue in Promitheas were getting a lot clearer, with their minds having time to catch up with the fatigue their bodies were feeling during the half-time break. Tony Taylor’s three made it an 8-0 run to start the quarter and the hole was getting wider.
Taylor has a resume like so many of the imports on this Virtus roster, doing a good tour of Europe before joining them this season. The first season back in Europe has seen a lot of upgrades on the roster. It’s a big step on the road back but they know what they are coming back from. Formerly one of the titans of the continent, just being a contender in a European competition of any sort and holding their own at the bottom end of the playoff race in Serie A is progress. This is nothing like the team that Manu Ginobili was on but it is the club and it’s got that desire to be among the greats again.
It took a few minutes but the Greek visitors finally settled into matters and started running with the hosts. Some sloppiness and miscommunication from the home side certainly helped. The grind had been coming from Terrell Parks all night. His early pro career was with clubs so off the radar that some don’t even have a Wikipedia page but he made an impression with Keravnos in FEC last year, winning the best defender award, and that was enough for Promitheas, as one of the few Greek clubs with money, to bring him in for their maiden European campaign.
Seeing less time on the floor was a real blast from the recent past. Langston Hall hit the court to give Promitheas the spurt they needed to get back into it. He would have last been on the radar back in the US as part of the Mercer side that famously won as a 15 seed over Duke in March Madness in 2014. As the third came to a close he was looking for and finding Parks. The Greeks were right back in this but the broader loss of energy across the team wasn’t going away. Aradori was wide open when he hit a three and he followed up by finishing inside off after Chrysostomos Sandramanis lost the ball weakly. Right out of the timeout, Promitheas gave up the ball again from a bad Dimitrios Katsivelis pass. They got a break through a questionable unsportsmanlike foul call but with 10 minutes to play, Virtus led 73-64.
A jogging break as opposed to a fast one from Christos Saloustros didn’t look terribly adventurous but it ended with a three from the Greek and Bologna’s suddently stagnant offence was in a little bit of trouble. Now it was Promitheas with the energy, comfortably bringing full court pressure as they harried well. Forza Virtus boomed from the far end of the hall as the home side looked to give the fans something to get worked up about but all they were finding was iron.
An unsportsmanlike, this time against the Patras club, midway through looked to have given Virtus a decent break but they didn’t do anything with the subsequent possession. This was hardly the flourish they were looking to finish the regular season with. It was just awful timing then for Promitheas that this was when they decided to forget how to score despite moving the ball well offensively.
Tony Taylor hit it. He could have finished with a soft lay-up but these fans needed something. He went with the one-handed dunk and then waved on the cheers. The rather irritating police siren from the Virtus fans, which really seemed to distracted from the ample noise they were making on their own, welcomed another defensive stop. Mantzoukas was back in to close things and he made a corner three to give them something to think about. Another from Hall made it a one possession game and then, just as it looked like Virtus had an escape in sight Kelvin Martin gave up an offensive foul.
Gkikas to Tony Meier. Three. Aradori should have settled matters at the line but he fluffed twice. Instead, we were headed to overtime.
A long Punter two got the home side off the mark first in the extra period before Meier tied it up again. A whopping 4 points in the first 2 minutes of the additional 5. Aradori fired back, again with a long score before promptly turning the ball over to Meier for another three. Promitheas ahead for the first time since very early in the opening frame.
This time, Virtus kept their nerve. Yannick Moreira went up the gut to score and switch the pressure back on the visitors. The whistles rained down as Gkikas missed a chance at a three to tie. Moreira kept on trucking, drawing trips to the line on consecutive possessions before blocking Petros Geromichalos.
It was hardly the most exotic approach to take in an endgame situation but it was enough. Virtus stripped away as much as possible towards the end to just keep it simple and send the crowd home happy. A put back dunk by M’Baye was the exclamation point as Virtus secured their 10-4 record and a top seed in Friday’s draw with an 98-91 win.
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