As a EuroLeague contestant in 16 seasons this century and a EuroCup winner as recently as 2017, it’s clear that Unicaja Malaga is one of the most prestigious and respected clubs in this season’s 7DAYS EuroCup. So when the Spanish side dropped out of contention for a place in the next stage by losing its first four games of the Top 16, the matter of ‘playing for pride’ was perhaps more meaningful than it might have been for other clubs.
Unicaja had even more motivation on Tuesday night heading into its road game at Joventut Badalona knowing that victory for the home team would be enough to secure Joventut’s spot in the last eight: as if being already eliminated was not already bad enough for Unicaja’s players, the idea of allowing another Spanish side to celebrate qualification would have been even worse to take in the event of yet another loss.
Therefore, even though Joventut obviously had far more at stake in terms of the competition, Unicaja was more than prepared to play very seriously and treat the game as a final. From the opening tip, Coach Fotis Katsikaris’s men were concentrated and focussed, even though Joventut guard Ferran Bassas was unstoppable in the early stages and scored an incredible 17 points in the first quarter. Other than Bassas, though, Unicaja’s intense defense ensured that Joventut found it difficult to score, and the dynamic playmaking skills of Jaime Fernandez – plus the potent long-range shooting of Adam Waczynski – ensured that Unicaja recorded plenty of points at the other end, too.
The visiting team continued to play with the same level of commitment throughout, and nobody embodied their attitude more than Fernandez. Spending a game-high 32 minutes on the floor, the point guard – who understands Unicaja’s history perfectly well after spending three seasons at the club – was a non-stop bundle of energy, constantly propelling his team and finishing with career highs in minutes, points (23), assists (10), rebounds (6) and PIR (33). In the end, his efforts were more than enough to help Unicaja hold its nerve in the final quarter and claim a convincing win.
After seeing his team taste victory for the first time in the Top 16, Unicaja Coach Katsikaris summed up their situation perfectly as he said: “In this kind of game it can be very difficult to motivate yourself, because unfortunately, we had no chance to go to the top eight. But I said to the team that the most important thing was our reputation. We represent a club that has a huge history and we cannot finish the group with no victories."
With their excellent efforts on Tuesday night, Unicaja’s players made sure they avoided that unwanted outcome.