AX Armani Exchange Milan is the first WE'RE BACK PRESEASON TOUR tournament winner! Milan ended a weekend of great basketball by downing Zalgiris Kaunas 88-70 in front of 2,700 fans at Zalgirio Arena on Sunday. Kevin Punter paced the winners with 26 points. Malcolm Delaney added 14 and Sergio Rodriguez 11 for Milan. Thomas Walkup led Zalgiris with 13 points and Arturas Milaknis added 10 for the hosts. Milan shook off a slow start as an unstoppable Punter joined forces with Malcolm Delaney and Zach LeDay to give the guests a 23-13 lead after 10 minutes. Milan's defense continued dominated en route to a 46-23 halftime margin. Arturas Milaknis and Rokas Jokubaitis managed to get Zalgiris within 63-50 after 30 minutes, but then Punter took over again to make sure Milan went back home with the tournament trophy. The second leg of the WE'RE BACK PRESEASON TOUR will be in Valencia, Spain on Tuesday and Wednesday, September 15 and 16, featuring LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne, Olympiacos Piraeus, FC Bayern Munich and Valencia Basket.
Zalgiris held Milan scoreless in the opening 3 minutes as Marius Grigonis struck from downtown for a 0-5 lead. Milan improved its defense and found a go-to guy in Punter, who had 10 quick points, getting help from Delaney and Kyle Hines to give his team a 17-11 lead. LeDay soon made it a double-digit game, 23-13, after 10 minutes. A zone defense allowed Zalgiris to stop Milan early in the second quarter. The hosts looked for Martinas Geben and Joffrey Lauvergne down low to get a bit closer at 25-18. Delaney rescued his team with a catch-and-shoot corner triple that Vladimir Micov followed with a driving layup at 30-18. Punter capped an 11-0 Milan run with a three-pointer to break the game open, 36-18. Grigonis answered from beyond the arc and Lauvergne dunked but Delaney buried back-to-back triples to make it 42-23. Hines downed a put-back layup and Michael Roll scored in penetration to fix the halftime score at 46-23. Walkup tried to ignite a Zalgiris comeback with a bomb from downtown right after the break. Lauvergne and Milaknis each scored around the basket as Milan called timeout at 48-30. Rodriguez briefly silenced the crowd with a pair of three-pointers but Walkup kept Zalgiris within 54-36. Rodriguez insisted from beyond the arc and fed LeDay for a dunk that kept Milan way ahead, 61-40. Jokubaitis capped a 0-7 Zalgiris run with a triple, and Geben added a layup-plus-foul for a 63-50 score after 30 minutes. Geben dunked early in the fourth quarter, then Lukas Lekavicius and Milaknis each buried a three-pointer, but an unstoppable Punter single-handedly kept Milan way ahead, 76-58. Zalgiris kept trying but Milan had cruised to a well-deserved win.
Punter bounces back
Kevin Punter did not play well against Zalgiris last season despite facing them with two different teams. He went scoreless against the Lithuanian powerhouse even when his team, Olympiacos Piraeus, beat Zalgiris 83-74 on November 15, 2019. Punter joined Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade and Zalgiris limited him to just 5 points on 2-of-8 shooting in a 70-76 loss in the Serbian capital. It all changed tonight: Punter finished the game with 26 points on 6-of-9 three-point shots and a PIR of 29.
A near-perfect first half
Milan sealed the outcome of the game in an outstanding first half in which Coach Ettore Messina's team did everything well. Milan hit 8 of 14 three-point shots (57.1%), had 6 steals, limited turnovers to just 3 and above all, forced Zalgiris to make many mistakes. The hosts hit just 2 of 11 shots from downtown (18.2%) and picked up 10 turnovers. At halftime, Delaney and Punter had outscored the whole Zalgiris team by 25-23. Milan had a PIR of 58 and Zalgiris just 15. Milan's next goal is carrying this momentum into the EuroLeague season.
Did you know?
Sergio Rodriguez and Kyle Hines were members of the last team to win the EuroLeague – CSKA Moscow – in the 2018-19 season. They continued their winning ways by lifting the WE'RE BACK PRESEASON TOUR tournament trophy in Kaunas. Hines and Rodriguez face a great challenge this season – winning the EuroLeague crown with a third different team each. Only only player previously has been able to win the EuroLeague title with three different teams: Sarunas Jasikevicius (FC Barcelona 2003, Maccabi Tel Aviv 2004, 2005, Panathinaikos Athens 2009).
Thank you, Zalgiris fans!
They say that good fans show it when their team does not have a good day, and this is why the Zalgiris faithful are a EuroLeague treasure. Despite the defeat, Zalgiris fans were singing and thanking their team in the final minute of the game. They kept clapping and singing all game long, showing that they truly missed EuroLeague games and of course, being there for Zalgiris. As always, they made a great basketball environment even better.
AX Armani Exchange Milan head coach Ettore Messina
"Of course, it was a good win for us. I think for long stretched, we played well on both ends of the court. Of course, we built the lead in the first half and the only think you cannot be happy about, of course, is the third quarter. We need to learn how to not to get relaxed and how to keep playing, playing, playing because the game lasts 40 minutes. But it has been a good tournament that gives us some confidence going ahead. We know it will be a long season, a difficult season, but we understand we have the tools and we have the good people and hopefully, we will build a good team. I think effort (was the key on defense). I think we put a lot of effort. I think my players are quick, they undertand they are capable to play defense and more important, they are willing to play defense. It happened. We had a good day. I think we started with a good attitude from Day One, this is very important. We played well in the (Italian) Supercup so far and now, we came here and faced EuroLeague teams. Of course, our season will be determined by how we will react to the tough times. Tough times come for every team, but also, we have the confidence, again, as I said in the beginning. It looks like we have not only the good players, but good people who work well together, and that's always a key. You know better than me, Zalgiris usually has a great chemistry which improved during the year and always has a good season because of the chemistry of their players. This is what we are trying to do in Milan, to find good chemistry, people who work hard together, and I think we are in the right way."
AX Armani Exchange Milan guard Kevin Punter:
"Convincing win. Still have to get better in each and every single day. Credit to Zalgiris, they played a great game also. We just trying to take it day by day, trying to get better each and every single day, no matter who are we playing against. We are just trying to build, that's pretty much it. I feel like we have a lot of experience in our team, a low of guys that played at this level. So, for us, I feel like it is a little bit easier in practice, a little bit easier in the game, guys know where to be. For us, it is just trying to get familiar with one another on the court, like I said, each and every single day, day by day. But me, personally, I feel like we kind of know each other's games. We played against each other for a couple of seasons now, so we are kind of similar with one another. It makes it a lot easier when we all come together."
Zalgiris Kaunas head coach Martin schiller
"I thought the game wasn't played in two halves. That's not true. It was not like two completely different halves, but we have stuff to learn from this game. I think Milan is very deep team, and it is not only deep, it has got very good quality throughout the depth, so I think they are a very good game. We said before the game that they are extremely good shooting team. From '1' to '4', they have extremely good shooters, and I think we felt this today. They shot the ball from the three-point line at 55% and if you play against a team like this, you have to really, really invest in contesting the shot. It is good that we learned this today and felt it today, because we will play this team again, obviously. I thought that, as crazy as it sounds, in the first half, the big struggle was in the offensive end and we couldn't score the basketball, then they came down and shot the ball extremely well, and then it was kind of like running against a tsunami. We fixed the offense a little bit against their switching defense and found a little bit better solutions which I am happy about in the second half. It was a 40-minute teaching game, how to attack that kind of defense, so I am happy that the guys kept competing. I think we won the second half, so that's good."