On a night in which Gran Canaria qualified for the Top 16 by beating Cedevita Olimpija Ljubljana 90-82, several members of the team recorded career-highs. Franco Ferrari dished 10 assists in just 17 minutes on the court and Matt Costello registered 16 points and 6 assists for a PIR of 27. There was another standout, whom only a few expected to be there. It was Khalifa Diop, Gran Canaria's 18-year-old Senegalese center.
"Khalifa is providing us with the contribution we need at the center position, from a seven-footer, something we need and that is needed in this competition," Coach Porfi Fisac said after the game.
These words were not said as a throwaway compliment to a youngster trying to help him build his self-confidence. It was well-deserved as Diop finished the game with 14 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks for a PIR of 25, the second-best on this team behind only Matt Costel.
Even though it was not the first time Diop started a EuroCup game, the absence of the injured Jacob Wiley granted him more playing time to showcase his skills. And he seized the opportunity in the best way possible. He played 21 minutes and hardly committed any mistakes; he made 6 of 7 two-pointers and helped his team dominate the boards against a team that had outrebounded Gran Canaria 46-33 the last time they met, including 13 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points. He became an unexpected weapon, the X-Factor, and it was not only because of his good overall stats.
Despite his young age and lack of experience, Diop looked like a veteran in crunch time. He drew a foul and hit a free throw when Olimpija got within 83-81 and then secured the glass with a defensive rebound off Rion Brown’s missed shot. He later grabbed an offensive board that enabled John Shurna to drill a key triple that extended the margin to 87-81 entering the last minute.
Those actions proved decisive in the end to help Gran Canaria to seal a hard-fought 90-82 victory and with it a ticket to the Top 16. A key contribution provided by an 18-year-old kid who is knocking on the door of European basketball's top level.