By the midway point of AX Armani Exchange Milan's playoff opener against FC Bayern Munich on Tuesday night, it seemed certain that head coach Ettore Messina's team was seeing its season unravel. The Italian team had suffered a nightmarish second quarter, being outscored 11-26 to find itself trailing 27-44 at the break – the second-highest interval advantage ever enjoyed by a road team in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs.
The start of the second half saw some improvement as Milan attempted to battle back, but even then Bayern was consistently able to do enough to remain relatively comfortable and headed into the final quarter with an 11-point margin.
But elite athletes do not reach the top of their profession without good reason, and in addition to being blessed with bundles of talent, it's only possible to enjoy a stellar career by also possessing the mental fortitude necessary to dig deep when the going gets tough. On this occasion, all those qualities were shown by one of the continent's top players over the last decade, two-time champion and former league MVP Sergio Rodriguez.
The first three quarters were, to be blunt, very bad for Rodriguez. The veteran playmaker did not score or provide an assist in the first 29 minutes of the game, missing all four attempted shots and committing a turnover with his lack of contribution playing a major role in Bayern's ability to dominate. But a man of Rodriguez's pedigree was never going to give up and he provided a sign of things to come by finally getting on the scoreboard with a driving layup in the final minute of the third quarter.
That was the signal for Rodriguez to take control. He started the final quarter with a three-pointer, then added 5 more points in 27 seconds to bring his team within 61-67 after totaling 10 points in 3 and a half minutes. That passage of play turned the momentum of the game, and Rodriguez was duly rested to recover some energy for the key final stages. He later returned to the action to produce another huge moment, sinking a three-pointer with 36 seconds remaining to make it 77-74 – Milan's first lead since the first quarter.
Still, though, that wasn't enough, as free throws restored Bayern's lead with 1.2 seconds on the clock. Facing one last chance to rescue the game, Coach Ettore Messina drew up a play for his most consistent performer on the night, Zach LeDay. The athletic American had played his part in the comeback with some big moments, including the score to tie the game at 74-74, and he saved his best for last: meeting the inbounds pass from Malcolm Delaney in full flight, LeDay was able to gather the ball and impart enough control on his immediate release to evade Jalen Reynolds's attempt to make a block, kiss the ball off the backboard and through the hoop for a sensational game-winner.
Before that shot, Milan fans no doubt were suffering unpleasant flashbacks to their team's sole previous playoffs appearance this century. In 2014, Milan lost Game 1 at home 99-101 in overtime to Maccabi Tel Aviv after Keith Langford missed 1 of 2 free throws with 0.7 seconds left in regulation time. That result flipped the home-court advantage to Maccabi, who prevailed twice at home to advance to the Final Four, returning to claim the EuroLeague trophy on the same Mediolanum Forum court in Milan a month later.
This time, luck was on Milan's side, as Messina was gracious enough to acknowledge. LeDay's decisive shot missed Reynolds's fingertips by a matter of centimeters and took two bounces off the rim before dropping through the hoop. The already-famous winning play could have easily had another ending.
"Of course, you need a bit of luck and we had it," Messina noted. "These days there is a word that everybody uses... resilient. Well, we've been resilient. And lucky."
Certainly true. Rodriguez brought the resilience. LeDay enjoyed the luck. And Milan secured a sensational victory.