It was a historic night in the 7DAYS EuroCup as Mornar Bar beat its national archrival Buducnost VOLI Podgorica in order to join it in the Top 16, a first for the club.
Buducnost made Mornar work for the distinction, too, coming back to tie 74-74 on its own floor in Podgorica with 3:22 to play after trailing by as many as 13 points in the second half.
Mornar decided the game after that with defense, capping an impressive performance on that end of the floor, led by Taylor Smith, who had a big block and a steal, as did Derek Needham, as Mornar scored the next 6 points to eventually claim a 78-84 win. With the victory, Mornar finished third in Group B while Buducnost dropped to fourth, but was already qualified for the Top 16.
Standing just 1.99 meters, Smith proved to have springs in his feet when Mornar needed it most. His 5 shots were the highest total by a Mornar player in the club's two EuroCup seasons to date. The team total of 9 blocks was also Mornar's best ever, not to mention tied for the best by any EuroCup team in almost three years.
The result of all that defense was little Mornar reaching its highest level ever in European competition, an accomplishment that was not lost on Mornar's head coach, Mihailo Pavicevic.
"What can you say? For us, it was a big game, big win," he noted afterward. "We made history because for our small club it's a really big thing to go to the Top 16 in the EuroCup, the second level of competition in Europe."
Pavicevic should know. He was born in Bar, a small Adriatic Coastal town of just 17,000 inhabitants. He played a decade of his 13-year professional career for Mornar. And since retiring as a player, he has coached Mornar in three separate stints totaling 12 years. He also played three seasons for Buducnost in the capital of Podgorica, and despite Mornar beating them twice this season, he had high praise for Wednesday's opponent.
"I want to congratulate to Buducnost too," he said. "They had already moved to Top 16, and I wish them all the best in the second round of the competition. They have a lot of chances because they are one of the best clubs in the EuroCup."
Indeed, part of the pride on Wednesday was not personal or even local, but national, after tiny Montenegro placed two representatives in the Top 16.
"For our small country, it's unbelievable," Pavicevic said. "For much bigger countries, it's hard to make it. I hope that this will help Montenegrin basketball [attract] young players to start to play basketball."
Before his thoughts turned to the Top 16, Pavicevic recalled that Mornar was a late addition to the EuroCup this season, signing on after another team dropped out, which is why it was in the rare situation of being paired with its archrival, Buducnost, in the same group. Now that both have survived, however, there is high anticipation in Montenegro of many great basketball nights ahead in the winter of 2021, with Top 16 games starting on January 13 in two of the country's cities for the first time.
"Buducnost has a chance almost to go to the final; they have a great team. We will fight for every game," Pavicevic said. "Thanks to the EuroCup people who gave us a chance to play on this level. We showed them we deserved it."