Coming off a painful home loss to Olympiacos Piraeus two days earlier, Valencia Basket needed to win on ALBA Berlin's court on Friday to assure that its chances to qualify for the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs would remain alive. As such, it was a do-or-die game for Valencia against another already-eliminated opponent playing without pressure because it had nothing to lose.
That disparity in expectations likely made a difference early in Friday's game. ALBA doubled Valencia at the end of the first quarter, 26-13, as the visibly tight visitors made just 4 of 14 field goal tries and turned the ball over 6 times. A four-point play by Marcus Eriksson early in the second quarter made it worse for Valencia, raising ALBA's advantage to 35-17 and triggering alarms on the visiting team.
"It was a final for us tonight; it was a big game. They were playing without pressure, and we had a lot of it," Valencia sharpshooter Klemen Prepelic said afterward.
Prepelic was the first Valencia player to react, scoring 15 second-quarter points himself to keep his team afloat at halftime, 53-42. It was as good as Valencia fans could have hoped for at that point considering ALBA's terrific offensive performance: 10-for-20 two-point and 9-for-18 three-point shooting based on 17 assists in the first 20 minutes.
But Valencia didn't give up.
"We started the game with a lot of nerves, at not the right level of intensity," head coach Jaume Ponsarnau said. "[We were] probably frozen because of the nerves, but we learned during the game."
His teammates soon followed Prepelic's example.
First it was Mike Tobey chipping in 10 points after the break to help tie the game, 61-61. That 18-point rally was Valencia's new club record in EuroLeague play. Later, after ALBA rebuilt its double-digit lead to 74-64 early in the fourth quarter, Nikola Kalinic and Derrick Williams took over, combining for 15 points in the game's last 5 minutes as Valencia surged anew for a historic 86-90 comeback victory.
Valencia's reserves did most of the damage, outscoring the starters 71-19 in a clear statement about this team's quality and depth. In addition to Prepelic's 24 points, Kalinic scored 17, Williams 15, Tobey 12 and Guillem Vives 3. Moreover, those bench players recorded 19 of Valencia's season-high 28 assists.
Although not completely in charge of its own destiny, Valencia survived into the final round of the regular season. It now plays a mouth-watering home showdown with TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz next Friday from which only the winner might make the playoffs, although neither will be assured of advancing when the game tips off. However, if during their game Real Madrid loses to Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul, which starts about an hour and 15 minutes earlier, the winner between Valencia and Baskonia will definitely make the playoffs.
"If we are playing tough, focused, with intensity, we are a hell of a team. If we are not, we can lose important games," Kalinic said. "Whatever is going on, we need to rebound, we need to make fouls and to play tough. If we play like that, I think we can win."