Small ball sent UNICS to the finals

Apr 15, 2021 by Print
Small ball sent UNICS to the finals

Game 3 of the 7DAYS EuroCup Semifinals between Virtus Segafredo Bologna and UNICS Kazan was one of the very best in competition history. It was already highly anticipated for many reasons. First, the winner would face AS Monaco in the EuroCup Finals. Second, Games 1 and 2 were outstanding basketball showdowns. Both games went on the wire and either team could have won.

Earlier this week, Zenit St Petersburg beat Panathinaikos OPAP Athens to qualify for the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs, thus leaving Valencia Basket, the still-reigning EuroCup champion, out of that. It meant that both of the EuroCup finalists would be eligible to play in the 2021-22 EuroLeague, turning the game between UNICS and Virtus into a do-or-die showdown to be in the top European competition next season.

The game did not disappoint any basketball fan: both teams gave their best, fought hard and when the dust settled, UNICS was the last team standing, recording a 100-107 road victory that allowed the Russian powerhouse to keep fighting for EuroCup glory.

UNICS had to fight through adversity, however, as Jordan Morgan left the game with a knee injury midway through the second quarter. Morgan slipped as he was trying to defend Virtus guard Marco Belinelli behind the three-point line and was helped off the floor. He did not return and all of a sudden, UNICS was without its leading rebounder and one of its best scorers.

Coach Dimitris Priftis was forced to turn to a small lineup, playing John Brown at center and Okaro White at power forward. White, who was playing against his former team, was one of the best players on the floor and finished the game with 22 points on 5-of-7 two-point shooting, 2-of-3 on three-pointers and 6-of-6 on free throws. He added 4 rebounds and 5 fouls drawn for a PIR of 22.

White came up big in crunch time, too. He hit a three-pointer and added a couple of close-range baskets in helping UNICS take a 77-79 edge to a promising 84-94 cushion. Virtus fought back, but Isaiah Canaan sealed the outcome with a wild shot from almost midcourt.

"We came to play our heart out," White said after the game. "We played our heart out and played with a great mentality. And we won the game!"

Brown had 20 points on 7-of-10 two-point shooting, 8 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals and 7 fouls drawn for a PIR of 31. Both White and Brown played over 33 minutes in Game 3.

"We just stuck with our game plan and executed well down defensively," Brown said. "Of course, they got some calls, but we stuck with it, didn't bicker with the referees like in the past and just held it together."

UNICS joined Unicaja Malaga and MoraBanc Andorra as the only teams to ever win EuroCup Game 3s on the road. In 2017, Unicaja won Game 3s against FC Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals and against Valencia in the EuroCup Finals. Andorra edged LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne in Game 3 of the 2019 quarterfinals.

One of the players who helped Unicaja win those Game 3s in 2017 was Jamar Smith, who also played a decisive role for UNICS in Bologna. Smith came off the bench to get 24 points and 5 assists. He now needs 62 points to become the EuroCup's all-time leading scorer. Bojan Dubljevic leads the table with 1,445 points and Smith is second at 1,384.

"It is a unique moment for us, for me personally, for the guys and for the club. We will participate next season with the top teams, in the EuroLeague. I am very thankful to my guys, to my players, to the staff, to the whole staff, to the people of my team," UNICS coach Dimitris Priftis said after the game. "Of course, this is not obviously done; we have the finals in front of us, but this is a very important achievement."

UNICS has the home-court advantage in the EuroCup Finals and will host AS Monaco on Tuesday, April 27 for the series opener at Basket Hall Kazan.