On this day, 15 years ago, Rytas Vilnius soared to its first EuroCup title – then named the ULEB Cup – by defeating a surprising Makedonikos of Greece in the title game played in Charleroi, Belgium. A crowd of 6,500 witnessed a thriller that ended 78-74 for Rytas, who lifted its first continental trophy ever and became the third champion of the competition after Valencia Basket and Hapoel Jerusalem.
Rytas arrived to Charleroi having defeated what was probably the most difficult opponent in the competition, Valencia Basket. In Game 1 of their home-and-away series, Valencia won by two points in Spain, so the second game in Lithuania would be decisive. In Vilnius, Rytas stepped up and won by 75-65 to advance to the single-game final. On the other series, Makedonikos had lost in Vrsac to Hemofarm in Game 1 by an overwhelming 107-84. Few counted on the Greek team to advance but Pete Mickeal, then a virtual unknown, stepped up and, as he had done in all the elimination rounds, led Makedonikos to a 96-65 Game 2 win in Kozani, propelling the Greek team to the final.
The birth of a star
Pete Mickeal had started the season in Dynamo Moscow, but did not see playing time and their relationship ended. He could not join another team in the EuroCup until the elimination rounds started, which he did by signing with Makedonikos. In the elimination rounds, Mickeal soared and was MVP of the week in every single phase en route to the final in Charleroi. In the final, he netted 24 points for a PIR of 31, but it was not enough to give Makedonikos the title. However, Mickeal showed that he was superstar material. In 2007, he landed in the EuroLeague for the first time and became one of the competition's most prominent players until he won the 2010 title with FC Barcelona.
About the game
Rytas started the game strong with a 23-14 lead in the first quarter. Tyrone Nesby and Simas Jasaitis were the leaders on offense. Manolis Papamakarios kept Makedonikos alive by hitting 4 of 9 three-pointers, and Slaven Rimac helped him, but by the break, Rytas was leading 44-24. Enter Mickeal, who almost single-handedly brought Makedonikos back into the game in the last period, with a 16-34 partial score. Rimac's three made it 73-67 entering the last minute, but Rytas managed to stay cool at the free throws line to earn its first continental title and a EuroLeague spot for the 2005-06 season. Nesby and Jasaitis would lead the winners with 16 points each, while Robertas Javtokas, with 14 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks, was named MVP of the final just two years after a motorcycle accident had threatened to end his career.
What happened next
Rytas would go and play the EuroLeague the following year. After that, the team alternated appearances between the EuroLeague and the EuroCup and, in fact, won the EuroCup title again in 2009. Makedonikos had played its second EuroCup season that 2005, but after that, the team never appeared again in the competition nor the EuroLeague. It had been champion of the Greek second division in 2002 and soared to the European elite in just three years, but after financial problems, the club moved back to its city of origin, Thessaloniki.