We have waited until the 17th edition of the EuroCup to see this – two teams meet in the finals for a second time! Valencia Basket and ALBA Berlin first faced each other in 2010 in one of the most memorable championship games in the competition.
Valencia, which then went by the official name of Power Electronics Valencia, was close to not even playing in the 2009-10 EuroCup. It had to earn its way into the competition through a two-game total-points qualifying round against Belgian side Dexia Mons-Hainaut. Against all odds, Mons registered a 78-63 home win in the first leg and arrived in Valencia with a 15-point margin. The second leg came down to the wire, but Victor Claver's late heroics allowed Valencia to force overtime, 73-58. Valencia prevailed 79-61 after surviving a do-or-die situation down the stretch. Rafa Martinez led Valencia in the second leg with 18 points and Nando De Colo added 15. Martinez is the only player from the 2010 championship side who will also take part in the 2019 EuroCup Finals, now as team captain.
Both teams survived the regular season, each with a 5-1 record. Once in the Last 16 – the competition's second group stage, ALBA was first in its group with a 4-2 record ahead of Aris Thessaloniki, Joventut Badalona and Le Mans. Valencia was dealt its first-ever home loss in the competition, 64-69 against Hapoel Jerusalem, but won its next five games to be first in a group that also featured future EuroCup champions UNICS Kazan and Galatasaray Cafe Crown Istanbul. After losing that Last 16 opener, Valencia faced its most critical moment, but got the first of nine consecutive wins that led the club to the trophy.
"I remember a meeting that we had in Kazan before a really important game against UNICS. We knew that we could play the competition if we played together and with confidence," Martinez said. "I will never forget that meeting! It paid off and we were able to lift the trophy."
Once in the two-game quarterfinals, Valencia gave Aris no chance, winning Game 1 in Thessaloniki, 64-71, behind 18 points from Marko Marinovic. It then swept the series with an 85-67 victory at home with 18 points from Thomas Kelati. Valencia led 47-28 at halftime and never looked back. ALBA had to battle harder against Jerusalem, which won the first leg 67-61 thanks to 23 points and 10 rebounds from Brandon Hunter. ALBA rallied in Game 2; Derrick Byars had 16 points to lead his team to a go-ahead 72-59 win that took the German powerhouse to the Final Four in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, along with Valencia, Bilbao Basket and Panellinios OPAP.
Both ALBA and Valencia had players recognized for their and their team's strong season at the All-EuroCup awards. Claver was chosen as the competition's Rising Star, De Colo and Matt Nielsen of Valencia made it to the All-EuroCup First Team, as was Immanuel McElroy of ALBA. Another ALBA player, Blagota Sekulic, was chosen to the All-EuroCup Second Team.
A lot of ALBA fans were not able to join their team in Vitoria due to the ash cloud caused by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, which kept planes from flying all over Europe. However, about 55 of them wouldn't be stopped from supporting their team. They boarded a bus in Berlin late Friday afternoon and drove 26 hours under the ash cloud to be in Vitoria in time on Saturday to inspire their team to a thrilling semifinals victory at Fernando Buesa Arena. ALBA defeated Bilbao 77-70 behind 27 points from Adam Chubb and 13 from McElroy. In the other semifinal, Valencia defeated Panellinios 92-80 thanks to 20 points from De Colo and 16 from Nielsen.
"We didn't have many big names back then, but a lot of players eventually improved like Matt Nielsen, Sergiy Lishchuk, Thomas Kelati, Nando De Colo, Victor Claver and myself," Martinez said. At first, we didn't look like a super team, but we played good basketball with Coach Neven Spahija as our guide."
Before the final, the entire ALBA team spent a couple of minutes by switching roles and offering their own applause to the yellow corner of the arena. ALBA's players were not the only people inspired by their fans. Host club Saski Baskonia gave the ALBA fans a reception with food and drink, while team officials and Euroleague Basketball CEO Jordi Bertomeu visited with them to show appreciation for their incredible effort and devotion.
Once the ball went up in the air, however, Valencia showed no mercy, leading 10-11 after 10 minutes and extending its margin to 22-36 at halftime. Nothing changed after the break, as Valencia kept dominating the game with outstanding defense and cruised to a 44-67 win. Valencia set several EuroCup Finals defensive records that still stand: 44 points allowed in a final, 22 points allowed in the first half. ALBA hit 29.6% of its two-point shots and was limited to a team PIR of 34. Kosta Perovic led the winners with 17 points. Kelati had 13, Marinovic 12 and Nielsen, who had 7 points and 6 rebounds for a PIR of 16, earned EuroCup Finals MVP honors.
"We had a really tough semifinal against Panellinios. I sprained my ankle, but had to play the final, which is a game everybody wants to play. We just rolled in the final against ALBA; it was a great opportunity for us and that date was marked in our calendar for months. If we played together and as a team, we knew we could win," Martinez said.
It was Valencia's second title in the competition after winning the original EuroCup campaign in 2003. It was also the first for Martinez, who this season will have the chance to become the first player with three EuroCup titles. Martinez, however, did not have a lot of time to celebrate due to a technical problem.
"I don't have any pictures in the locker room after winning the title because my doping test took forever," he recalled. "Better late than never!" he joked. Martinez celebrated with the rest of the team at Basket-Hall Kazan in 2014 and now wants to repeat the experience, going full circle against ALBA, once again.