Will Clyburn showed why he’d won EuroLeague Final Four MVP honors two years ago, and CSKA Moscow rolled past UNICS Kazan 102-86 Saturday to recapture the second place in the United VTB League standings.
The reigning champs swept the opponent 2-0 in regular season and snapped its 10-game winning streak, which ran for 83 days. UNICS was unbeaten since Jan. 3, having suffered its most recent defeat also at the hands of CSKA on Dec. 26, 2020, when Mike James and Tornike Shengelia carried the Muscovites to an important road win in Kazan.
The two teams now share the same record (15-5), trailing league leader Zenit St. Petersburg (18-3), which will host CSKA on April 5. The better head-to-head record gives the “Army” advantage over UNICS.
The final score of Saturday’s encounter could be deceptive, though, as CSKA had to work hard to beat the gritty outfit from Tatarstan.
As early as the third minute, CSKA lost its star playmaker Mike James who left the court after an apparently heated argument with head coach Dimitris Itoudis during a time-out. The team’s press service later said that James had to leave the floor due to stomach problems and fever. At a postgame press conference, Itoudis only briefly touched upon the episode, refusing “to get into details right now.”
UNICS raced to an early 2-7 lead, and midway through the first quarter went on an 8-0 run to build its biggest cushion of the night, 10-19. However, James’s substitute Ivan Ukhov proved to be CSKA’s most potent weapon in the opening quarter. He scored eight points, including two three-pointers, and added an assist and a rebound to keep CSKA in contention. At the end of first period, UNICS clung to a slim 24-21 lead, which was then reduced to a single point after Ukhov raced away from his defender and grabbed Clyburn’s inbound pass under the basket for an easy lay-up.
Ukhov soon left the floor, and the fans were treated to a one-man show staged by Clyburn. Coming off the bench in the seventh minute, the star forward rattled off 22 points by halftime, including four threes! And still, UNICS was breathing down the opponent’s neck as CSKA finished the second quarter with a two-possession lead, 54-48.
Clyburn scored only two more points in the second half, but he had an excellent supporting cast in Daniel Hackett and Ukhov who scored 16 points apiece on a combined 8-of-12 three-point shooting, Tornike Shengelia who added 15 points and a versatile Johannes Voigtmann, just three dimes short of a triple-double (11 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists).
Midway through the third quarter it still looked as if UNICS might be able to pull off the eleventh win in a row as Okaro White nailed a three-pointer to trim the hosts’ lead to six, 70-64. But CSKA’s ensuing onslaught left little doubt about the final outcome – within less than six minutes the “Army” closed the game with a 16-3 run capped by an Ukhov three-pointer. The champs’ lead had swollen to 19 (86-67), their biggest of the night.
CSKA has now won four in a row, and in the four remaining games has two tough road trips, to St. Petersburg and Krasnodar. UNICS faces weaker opponents, the only true test being the April 25 home game against Lokomotiv Kuban in the last round of the regular season.