For most of the game, he was the oldest player on the court. And as if out to not only lead his team to victory in a do-or-die situation, but to prove how important experience in such games is, Mantas Kalnietis turned in a career performance on Thursday night in Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar's 86-74 victory over UNICS Kazan. The win evened the team's best-of-three 7DAYS EuroCup Quarterfinals at 1-1 and forced a Game 3 to be played on Wednesday, March 31, in Kazan, Russia.
To say that Kalnietis turned back the clock would be unfair; after all, the former EuroCup champion leads the competition in assists this season and Thursday's 10-assist performance marked his sixth double-digit assist game this season. It was also his third double-double of the campaign. But what stood out was his scoring. Kalnietis racked up a career-high 23 points and he did much of his damage early to set the tone.
Kalnietis tallied 8 points and 3 assists in the second quarter when Lokomotiv outscored UNICS 26-11 to take control of the game. He led a decisive 12-0 run with 6 points and an assist – including a three-point play that gave Lokomotiv its first double-digit cushion.
That came after he posted 7 points and 3 assists in the first 10 minutes. Among his 6 points and 3 assists in the third was a steal and slam that further dejected struggling UNICS. All of this is to say, Kalnietis did not pad the stat line with late free throws (though he did make 2 in the final minute) or garbage-time points, he took the game by the horns and carried Lokomotiv to a season-extending victory.
At age 34, Kalnietis was the oldest player in the game, aside from the 6:15 minutes when UNICS played guard Evgeny Kolesnikov, who is a year older. Despite having appeared in 174 games in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and this being his 68th in the EuroCup – which are more games at the highest European level than any other player in the game – Kalnietis played a game-high 35:42.
Against UNICS, he topped the 20-point mark for the fourth time in the EuroCup and recorded a performance index rating of 29, which was the second-highest of his career. Kalnietis notched a PIR of 30 two weeks earlier, in another win-or-go-home game, the Top 16 finale against Dolomiti Energia Trento. He collected 21 points and 10 assists in that game.
Now Lokomotiv faces yet another must-win game to reach the semifinals. Let there be no doubt in anyone's mind... When the season is on the line, Lokomotiv can count on Kalnietis.