After four home winners in the 7DAYS EuroCup Quarterfinals series openers earlier last week, there was an even split in Game 2 on Friday between qualifiers to the semifinals and survivors who lived to fight another day. Congratulations to Darussafaka Istanbul and Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar, who punched their tickets to the next phase. They now await the Game 3 winners, respectively, between Grissin Bon Reggio Emilia vs. Zenit St Petersburg and FC Bayern Munich vs. UNICS Kazan, both games coming on Wednesday.
Voronov, faster pace helps Zenit tie the series
It was a make-or-break game for Zenit St.Petesburg after its Game 1 road loss to Grissin Bon Reggio Emilia. In that opener, Reggio Emilia had held Zenit to a season-low 60 points and things were going in the same direction when they met in St Petersburg on Friday. Reggio Emilia's defense did not allow Zenit to feel comfortable in the first half. The hosts hit only 1 of 6 three-point shots in the opening quarter as sharpshooters Sergey Karasev and Kyle Kuric did not find their rhythm. Only a great performance by Evgeny Voronov – 11 points before the break – allowed Zenit to stay as close as 35-39 at halftime. Everything changed after the break, as Zenit was able to rebound the ball and run the floor, leading to back-to-back layups by Marko Simonovic that quickly tied the game at 41-41. Even when league-leading rebounder Drew Gordon struggled in Game 2 with 0 boards, Zenit outrebounded Reggio Emilia by 31-27, getting 24 in the defensive end, which allowed the hosts to play their usual run-and-gun game. Kuric ended up finding the way to the basket, hitting 3 bombs from downtown to climb to third place in the all-time standings. Only Rafa Martinez (215) and Marko Popovic (207) have more three-point shots made than Kuric (172) in competition history. Voronov did not stop until the final buzzer, setting new EuroCup career highs in points (22), rebounds (8) and performance index rating (32). Despite not being as accurate as usual from beyond the arc (7-of-24, 29.2%), Zenit found easy baskets in transition, scoring with great efficiency from two-point range (62.2%, 23-of-37) and getting 56 points after the break. Zenit turned defense into offense, as it forced Reggio Emilia into 14 turnovers and limited league-leading scorer Amedeo Della Valle to just 7 points. So, the series goes down in Game 3 and whoever makes the most out of its strengths will make it to the semifinals for the first time. Reggio Emilia needs to get Della Valle involved and to prevent Zenit from running. Zenit needs a solid contribution from both Karasev and Kuric, while Gordon and Shayne Whittington need to win the battle under the boards against Jalen Reynolds and Julian Wright. EuroCup fans are in for a treat, as Game 3 will be very exciting.
UNICS wakes up in time
By halftime of Game 2 on their own court in Kazan, Russia on Friday, former EuroCup champion UNICS had managed to win just one of six quarters played so far in its series against FC Bayern Munich. Not even a 7-0 start at home could avoid Bayern winning the first quarter of Game 2 by 16-22. In the opening game back in Germany, an experienced UNICS side just could not stop Bayern around the rim, where the German side made 75% of their shots. But if UNICS was only down 33-32 at halftime back in Game 1, they were looking at a much worse 30-40 deficit at the break in Game 2. UNICS was 20 minutes from getting swept, a true rarity for so proud a club. That pride showed up in the form of a pair of blocks by Stephane Lasme in the middle of the third quarter of Game 2, when UNICS was still down 36-46. His efforts lit a fuse that saw the UNICS defense hold Bayern to 4 points over the next 7:30 to take a 54-52 lead into the fourth quarter. And that's when the veteran leaders took over, with Lasme and Quino Colom sharing 11 of first 14 points for UNICS in that fourth quarter to go up 68-63. When Jamar Smith added a three-pointer to the one that Evgeny Kolesnikov had hit earlier, UNICS had enough of a cushion to hold off Bayern's late charge. In that rally, UNICS learned that it could score inside against Bayern, too, making 63.2% of its tries near the rim and pulling off a 17-point scoreboard swing in the game's final 18 minutes. Yes, UNICS hit all 5 of its three-pointers in that second half, but it had made 13 in Munich and that didn't help much. "I think in the second half we put our minds to playing defense, help defense," UNICS head coach Dimitris Priftis said. "We had a different approach to the game. We stopped worrying about offense and focused more on defense." Going back to Germany for Game 3 having avoided a sweep and with a little better balance in its offense, UNICS also has the momentum of that 50-33 second half in Game 2. They have evened the series in both the literal and figurative senses, and despite playing on the road, have become much more dangerous for having discovered what works.
Darussafaka accepts no excuses
With two regular starters missing Game 2 for distinct reasons – James Bell with a season-ending foot injury from Game 1 and Howard Sant-Roos because his father passed away – Darussafaka Istanbul might have been expected to show a little vulnerability early when visiting Buducnost VOLI Podgorica on Friday. After all, their first game had been no picnic, with Darussafaka's defense finally securing a 57-54 home win that was difficult every step of the way. But faced with adversity in Game 2, Darussafaka dug deep. Muhammed Baygul was in the starting lineup for the seventh time in his 14 appearances this season, while 22-year-old Kartal Ozmizrak made the first start of his short EuroCup career. Both of them scored early, which no doubt made them comfortable. Meanwhile, the exquisite Scottie Wilbekin, the EuroCup's regular season MVP, set the pace for Darussafaka, gliding around the court and jumping out of reach to make the first of his 3 three-pointers. Most importantly, by the end of the first quarter it was 12-19 and seven different Darussafaka players had scored already. In other words, everyone was going to pick up for their missing teammates. All of them, and strong start, were needed against a never-say-die Buducnost club whose heady crowd was making a ruckus to help them. It was not going to be enough, though. Darussafaka went up by 13 at halftime, 26-39, and held that difference after three quarters, as well, before finishing up a 71-78 win for a series sweep. Baygul and Ozmizrak combined for 49 minutes, 18 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists that not only filled in admirably for their missing comrades, but promised that Darussafaka will be even better going forward. "This kind of game can make our team stronger," head coach David Blatt said. "Kartal Ozmizrak gave a great performance. It is not just 8 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. You have to understand that recently he has not played a lot. We were missing tonight two starters, James Bell and Howard Sant-Roos, and Kartal got the call and answered in a big game. We don't win a game without his performance today."
Kulagin goes loco for Lokomotiv
Despite its perfect record, Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar was another series favorite that really struggled to win Game 1 of the quarterfinals at home. Lokomotiv trailed by 7 points with less than 5 minutes to play before finding its defense and coming alive to win 79-74. Having learned just before Game 1 that its glue player, Ryan Broekhoff, would be lost for six weeks to injury, Lokomotiv had to adjust on the fly. And then it had to make the longest road trip in the competition to face offensive-minded Herbalife Gran Canaria on its own floor in Game 2. The hosts were primed for a battle, losing only by 35-37 at halftime, but Lokomotiv guard Dmitry Kulagin was ready for anything. The season had already started back in October when Lokomotiv picked up Kulagin, and the rewards have kept growing since. In Game 1, Kulagin scored 20 points, which was his EuroCup career high and the best for Lokomotiv in that game. In Game 2, he outdid himself. To 13 points in the first half, he added 19 more in the second as Lokomotiv ran away with a 59-80 victory to clinch a spot in the semifinals. His total of 32 points as 9 more than any Lokomotiv player scored all season and the second-highest individual total in the club's 87 EuroCup games to date. Only three players in EuroCup history had scored more points in a quarterfinals game. Lost in the glare of Kulagin's big night was Lokomotiv's incredible defensive performance. Gran Canaria came onto its own court as the EuroCup scoring leader with 88.6 points per game, the second-highest average in competition history through 17 games. But the 18th game was a wall that Gran Canaria ran into on its home court in front of its home fans. And that defensive wall was named Lokomotiv. With a go-to scorer emerging in the quarterfinals and a defense that just threw an emergency brake on the highest scoring EuroCup team in some time, Lokomotiv is now 18-0 and counting – we can only wonder how high.