Road to the Finals, Darussafaka Istanbul

Mar 28, 2018 by Print
Road to the Finals, Darussafaka Istanbul

In its return to the competition after a dozen years away, Darussafaka Istanbul is in the process of re-writing the club's history books. Not only have Coach David Blatt and Regular Season and Semifinals MVP Scottie Wilbekin led Darussafaka to its first 7DAYS EuroCup Finals, but to the club's very first final in any European competition. Moreover, Darussafaka is a step away from ending a more than half-century-long wait to lift a major trophy, its first since defending the Turkish League championship back in 1962. The club is breaking new ground as are the players since this is the first finals appearance in this competition for every single one of them. However, that so-called inexperience has not shown so far in any game or any stage of the season. That’s in great part due to the experience and the winning habits of Coach Blatt. Darussafaka enters the championship series on a four-game winning streak and with a 17-3 record, which is second best for the current campaign only behind its finals opponent, unbeaten Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar.

Darussafaka seemed to show no early jitters in its return to the EuroCup as it opened the season with six consecutive wins, though the first three of them came in come-from-behind fashion. Darussafaka was down double-digits in the first quarter of the season opener at Levallois Metropolitans only to really behind its defense to a 64-69 road win. It trailed by double-digits in the third quarter in its Round 2 home-opener against Cedevita Zagreb too, but edged the visitors 85-83 behind 23 points from Wilbekin and 20 from JaJuan Johnson. A week later, UNICS Kazan led for the majority of the first 35 minutes, but a strong finish from Coach Blatt's charges begat a 78-69 victory. The team went on to win three more contests before dropping its first, with Wilbekin sidelined, in Round 7 after overtime at Cedevita. Wilbekin returned and Darussafaka bounced right back in Round 8, edging UNICS on the road 75-79 and, in the process, clinching first place in Group A. Wilbekin was named Regular Season MVP for posting 19.0 points and 5.1 assists per contest and Darussafaka’s defense put everyone on notice, allowing the second-fewest points per game (72.9) during the first 10 games.

If there were still any doubters after the first stage of the competition, Darussafaka showed right from the start of the Top 16 that the regular season was no fluke, opening its Group E journey with a 65-84 drubbing of a city-rival Galatasaray Odeabank Istanbul. With Wilbekin unable to play, three players had double-doubles in that game. Johnson had a stellar performance with 28 points and 12 rebound, Howard Sant-Roos collected 15 points and 10 boards, and Micheal Eric posted 11 points and 10 rebounds. Wilbekin returned the very next week and scored 20 points and Sant-Roos dished 10 assists as Darussafaka handled Herbalife Gran Canaria 88-70. Three wins by double-digit margins followed, two against ALBA Berlin and another against Galatasaray, which saw Darussafaka clinch first place in the standings and home-court advantage for the quarterfinals. Darussafaka did not allow more than 70 points in any of the first five games and despite losing its Top 16 finale at Gran Canaria, its defense finished second in the Top 16 in points allowed (68.7 ppg.), three-point shooting percentages (27.9%), three-pointers made (5.7 3FG) and forced turnovers (16.3 per game).

That tough-as-nails defense was on display again in the quarterfinals series opener against Buducnost VOLI Podgorica in which Darussafaka prevailed 57-54 at home. Darussafaka looked in control with a 13-point third-quarter lead, which appeared to be pretty safe in a remarkably low-scoring affair, but Buducnost held the home side scoreless for the first six minutes of the fourth and the game went down to the wire. Wilbekin nailed the go-ahead three-pointer with 25 seconds remaining and finished the game with 16 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists for a 1-0 series lead. Darussafaka lost starting small forward James Bell in that game and Sant-Roos missed Game 2 due to family reasons, but even with a depleted side Darussafaka still controlled the second leg of the series in the Montenegrin capital from the get-go and cruised to a 71-78 win. Its defense held Buducnost to only 2 field goals over a 14-minute stretch as Darussafaka built a 26-39 halftime advantage before padding the lead to 46-64 in the second as Wilbekin scored 22 points to complete a series sweep.

The semifinal series against FC Bayern Munich will go down in competition history as one of the most memorable. The two games showed all of Darussafaka’s faces and displayed what this team is truly made of. Bayern was up by double-digits early in the first quarter of Game 1 in Istanbul and the margin grew to 23 points late in the second quarter. Darussafaka rallied with a 28-16 third quarter and took its first lead in the final minute of the fourth, but still needed Stanton Kidd's catch-and-shoot triple in the game's final second to win it 76-74. Wilbekin led the way with 24 points and 7 assists, Eric had a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds and Dogus Ozdemiroglou was the defensive catalyst. While the Game 1 comeback was a total team effort, the 83-87 victory in Game 2 in Germany was a one-man show. Wilbekin netted 41 points on 10-for-15 three-point shooting to set competition records for points scored and triples made in a non-overtime games and his performance index rating of 44 was the third-best in semifinals history. More importantly, his one-of-a-kind performance led Darussafaka to a sweep of Bayern and a place in the championship series, one step away from what would be a historic title.