With their fans in the arena for the first time in half a year, Zalgiris Kaunas rewarded them with a hard-fought 81-74 victory over Panathinaikos OPAP Athens in Saturday's second semifinal of the WE'RE BACK PRESEASON TOUR. Zalgiris will face AX Armani Exchange Milan in Sunday's championship game. Zalgiris led from tipoff to the final buzzer, but Panathinaikos came close at times, most notably at 59-56 early in the fourth quarter and 79-74 in the game's final minute before the hosts closed it out. Rokas Jokubaitis came off the bench to lead the winners with 16 points in under 18 minutes. Joffrey Lauvergne was everywhere with 15 points and 13 rebounds, while Marius Grigonis scored 14 and Thomas Walkup paired 13 points with 8 assists. Nemanja Nedovic drilled 22 points and Pierre Jackson 18 for Panathinaikos.
Four of the Zalgiris starters scored early as Grigonis capped the opening minutes with a three-pointer good for a 13-6 lead. Jackson and Nedovic cut the difference to 15-10 but Zalgiris retained control and soon Lekavicius was getting behind the Zalgiris defense for a 23-17 advantage after 10 minutes. Jokubaitis took the baton for Zalgiris in the second quarter, scoring a pair of three-point plays before Lauvergne added 2 baskets for a lead of 39-30. Jackson uncorked his third three-pointer to finish the half by bringing Panathinaikos within 43-38. Walkup scored the first 5 points after halftime and then Grigonis connected with Lauvergne on a no-look pass as Zalgiris went up by double digits, 52-40. Nedovic danced for a layup and connected twice with Georgios Papagiannis for dunks in trying to lower the difference. Nedovic consummated that effort with another basket that preceded Ben Bentil's free throw at 59-54 to end the third quarter. Jackson's opened the fourth quarter at 59-56, but in the next 3 minutes, the Milaknis pumped in 2 triples that made it 67-58. Grigonis joined in from deep to make it 70-60. Nedovic and Jackson chipped away to get Panathinaikos within 73-68 with less than 3 minutes left, but a second consecutive press-break ending with a Walkup-to-Lauvergne dunk told the Zalgiris fans that they were going to Sunday's final.
Roar of the crowd
The voices of more than 2,700 socially-distanced fans returned to the 14,415-seat Zalgirio Arena and could be heard loud and clear from the moment the lights went down for their team to be introduced in typically raucous fashion by arena announcer Andrius Ziurauskas. Though it was not the typical sellout in one of the best places on earth to witness a basketball game, it was a breath of fresh air to hear basketball-crazy Lithuanian fans chanting, cheering and jumping up and down for their team again.
That Zalgiris crowd got a very good omen early when Rokas Jokubaitis came off the bench late in the first quarter looking much more in charge than his 19 years of age suggest. When he left the court about 8 minutes later, he had a floor-high 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting, and made finding his shots look easy. He would finish with a team-high 16 points on 6-for-8 two-point and 4-for-4 free-throw shooting. Going into his third EuroLeague season already, Jokubaitis is looking to be right on schedule to help Zalgiris more and more.
Greens new backcourt
Panathinaikos fans got a good glimpse of what their all-new backcourt is capable of, and that means a lot of offense. Nemanja Nedovic had 22 points and Pierre Jackson 18 as the only two double-digits scorers for the Greens. They also split 6 of their team's 8 three-point shots and very much kept the team alive until the finish.
Post-game quotes, Zalgiris Kaunas
Martin Schiller, head coach
"First of all, it was really nice being here with the fans. I know the arena was not as full as it always is, obviously, but still despite that it was really loud and a nice atmosphere, so I am really happy that a lot of people were here and for the support of the fans. Second, we are happy about the game, the way we played, due to a couple of things. One, we rebounded the ball decently. This was a big topic for us; we needed to rebound the ball against a very tall team. Two, we didn't turn the ball over too high. We had 12 turnover, which is fine. We had turned it over too much earlier in the preseason. Three, I think we shot 22% from three and still got up to 80 points. That gives us confidence that if we can make some open shots, we'll look decent offensively."
Joffrey Lauvergne, center
"It was a lot of fun, the first game since a long time with fans in the stands. We enjoyed it. I think we played pretty well. For sure we can improve, but it was a good first step. I think we played good defense, and just scored the ball. It was a lot of fun and this was the most important."
Thomas Walkup, guard
"This is our first game where we played well defensively, or did some good things defensively. We kept them to a number that we're happy with, 74 points; that's pretty good. The 81 for us is way less than we scored through our preseason time, so it was nice to see that we can mix it up, play a low-scoring game and still come out on top. I thought a lot of guys did a lot of things well tonight, and it'll be a quick turnaround for tomorrow."
Panathinaikos OPAP Athens
Georgios Vovoras, head coach
"It was a good game for us. We played against a team that put pressure on us and was very aggressive. This is the EuroLeague level and, for us, it was a great lesson in how we must approach and prepare each game.
to Zalgiris for the win. We are taking some lessons away. Obviously, if you have just 15 assists, you cannot win. We will use this to improve. After five months, it was very important to play this game and I think it will help our team."
Nemanja Nedovic, guard
"Let's say it was our first real text this year. We're building something new and we for sure need some time to get into game shape. But I think it was a good lesson for us today. Regarding the game, I think at first we had a lot of trouble with defense, especially. And then in the second half, we picked it up on defense, but we had some stupid turnovers that cost us the game. Personally, I think we have a lot of room for improvement and we just have to continue to work. Like I said, it's the beginning and we have some time to erase these errors and be ready for the start of a hard season."