Late in the third quarter, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Unicaja Malaga was going to return to the 7DAYS EuroCup Semifinals for the second time in three seasons. Unicaja was ahead by as many as 13 points and controlling the paint through Mathias Lessort and Giorgi Shermadini.
And then ALBA's wily coach Aito Garcia Reneses pulled an ace from his sleeve. He switched his players to a zone defense and the game changed. Unicaja was caught off guard because ALBA hardly ever employed zone defenses and that was part of the strategy.
"We practiced this," Aito said after the game. "Not often during the season, but this week yes because we had a lot of problems with [defending] the pick-and-roll. So I decided to defend with the zone and it worked good for us because they lost the continuity they had with good offense."
Unicaja was not prepared and committed a pair of turnovers that helped ALBA to reel off 11 unanswered points and close the gap to 62-64 at the end of the third quarter. The zone also slowed down Unicaja's paint scoring both in quantity and quality.
After Carlos Suarez made it 50-62 with 2 minutes left in the third, his team had shot 17 for 22 on two-point baskets. That was not only an extraordinary 77.3% percent rate, but meant that Unicaja was making a basket inside the three-point line every minute and 38 seconds. From that point, Unicaja shot 4 of 7 on two-pointers, which meant a basket every 3 minutes at 57.1%.
"They played zone and we played passive," Unicaja shooter Sasu Salin, who was his team's premier perimeter threat with 5 three-pointers from 8 shots, said with frustration after the game. "This is what they wanted. We just started walking and didn't make any shots. After that is was difficult to play again."
No tactical move can solely decide a game. ALBA won also because it shot well in the last 12 minutes (7 of 11 three-pointers, 63.6%) and got contributions from many players.
Peyton Siva was ALBA's most productive player with 15 points and 10 assists on the night, but like a true playmaker, he shined a light on his teammates: "Our guys coming off the bench hit a lot of big shots. Joshi [Saibou] started us off, Tim [Schneider] and Niels [Giffey] really did a great job for us of knocking down big shots and it helped us out."
Aito agreed and even had an explanation for such shooting. "When you are losing, but you know you can win, you have faith. Then it is not a problem," he explained. "It is more difficult when you are tight to shoot and score. When you are losing, you shoot free and we did very well at the end of the [third] quarter and in the fourth quarter, too."
The zone defense changed the game. It slowed Unicaja and gave ALBA confidence. With that confidence, ALBA started to shoot better. And lo and behold, that proved to be just what ALBA needed to rally for the Game 3 and win and a berth in the EuroCup Semifinals.