AX Armani Exchange Milan’s meeting with FC Barcelona on Thursday night – which would decide the identity of the team in first place atop the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague standings – was packed full of big-name stars.
The visitors came armed with, among others, October’s MVP Nikola Mirotic, single-season assists record holder Nick Calathes and two-time champ Cory Higgins, who had struck a nerveless game-winner when the teams last met in May’s semifinal. The hosts meanwhile were loaded with a roster including four-time champion Kyle Hines, former EuroLeague MVP Sergio Rodriguez and an All-EuroLeague selection from last season, Shavon Shields.
Although Higgins had a rare off-night, the others all delivered big moments. Mirotic led a strong start to the second half from Barca and Calathes posted 9 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Hines hit only the second three-pointer of his EuroLeague career (the other one, weirdly enough, also came against Barca) and made a brutal block on Nigel Hayes-Davis. Rodriguez dished a delightful no-look assist to Dinos Mitoglou and scored a crucial step-back jumper in the last minute, shortly after Shields had made a vital late three.
In the end, though, one star shone brighter than them all: Gigi Datome.
At the start of the month which will see him turn 34 years old, Datome led all scorers with 17 points, making 4 of 8 field goals and 7 of 8 shots from the foul line. He also grabbed 2 rebounds, made a steal and drew 4 fouls, enough for a game-high PIR of 16. It was also the highest point tally and PIR of the season for the former title winner with Fenerbahce Istanbul, and his second-best scoring night since joining Milan at the start of last season.
In addition to the pure numbers, though, Datome’s contributions were even more meaningful because they came at key moments in the game. His first basket came during an opening-quarter surge which saw Milan claim its first sizeable lead; then he netted twice in the space of 62 seconds to send his team up by 12 at the end of the third quarter.
That was not enough to seal the win as Barca battled back in the fourth quarter with a 0-14 run to go ahead for the first time all night, but Datome stepped up again. First, he made a key steal, allowing Shields to hit a triple for a 67-65 lead inside the final 3 minutes. Then, after Barca missed on its next possession, Datome found his favorite spot in the corner, received a pass from Hines and sank a three-pointer which became a four-point play after contact from Higgins.
With less than two minutes to play, Barca never really had the chance to recover from that 6-point Datome-inflicted deficit and the Mediolanum Forum fans were able to celebrate their teams’ seventh victory of the season in a true table-topping clash. And the message was clear: when you’re talking about the EuroLeague’s most tried and trusted performers, don’t forget about Gigi.