Things had not started well for Dejan Radonjic in his second stint with Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade. Zvezda came off a bad loss in the Adriatic League, 85-65, against Ikogea Aleksandrovac. Coach Radonjic managed to turn the situation around in less than 72 hours, as Zvezda defeated Panathinaikos OPAP Athens 74-71 at Aleksandar Nikolic Hall.
Zvezda improved in aspects not always shown in the stats. The team came out with the right mentality, diving for loose balls, playing with high intensity and being focused at all times. It did a great job of using non-shooting fouls to avoid easy baskets and that allowed Zvezda to get a double-digit lead that eventually led it to victory.
It was not easy, as Zvezda was without Jordan Loyd, its top scorer and main offensive reference; Langston Hall, its starting point guard; Landry Nnoko, who just re-joined the team and is not ready to play yet; and veteran shooter Marko Simonovic. Still, Radonjic found answers off the bench to keep playing at a high level.
Two of his reserves had a decisive contribution. Quino Colom had 13 points on 3-of-5 three-point shooting and 4-of-5 free throws, adding an assist and 3 fouls drawn - all in 14 minutes on the court. A EuroLeague veteran and a former All-EuroCup First Team selection, Colom is meant to have a major role in this team and already played alongside Loyd at Valencia Basket last season.
Australian big man Duop Reath played less than 6 minutes, but had all of his 7 points in the third quarter in which both teams struggled to score. In fact, Reath scored 7 of his team's 9 points in those 10 minutes.
"First of all, congrats to my players for the game tonight. Before the game, it was, for me, most important to play better than the last game, especially, but we played much better," Radonjic admitted after the game. "Then in the first half, we had quite good offense and made a lot of shots with good defense, too, but in the second half, we missed a lot. We made some mistakes offensively and our defense was good, I can say and, in the end, in this moment, it is a very, very important win."
Radonjic used Corey Walden at the starting point guard spot and that move paid off nicely. Walden made 3 consecutive three-point shots in the first quarter to switch the game's momentum. He also hit a pair of critical free throws which made it a two-possession game, 72-68, with 15 seconds remaining. Walden finished the game with 17 points, 5 assists and 2 steals.
"We haven't smiled in a while. Again, not the prettiest, but I really don't give a damn. We needed it," Walden said after the game. "I will take it right now, especially ending the year with a win, I will take that. The second half was not pretty, we could have definitely been better - turnovers, playing with an idea, playing smarter, offense and defense. We could have been better but again, I don't care, we got the win and we will celebrate."
Even with all that, there is plenty of room for improvement. Zvezda led 68-57 with less than 3 minutes left and made some critical mistakes. Panathinaikos capitalized on those through an outstanding Ioannis Papapetrou, who had 9 points in an 11-0 run that tied it at 68-68. Zvezda was perfect from the foul line in crunch time, as Johnny O'Bryant, Walden and Dejan Davidovac combined for 6 free throws in the final 36 seconds.
Zvezda has now won its last two home games; it previously downed Valencia. Zvezda will open 2021 with another home game against Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul before going on the road to face Real Madrid and Valencia, in what will be a very special game for Colom and Loyd.