After three straight Euroleague seasons of semi-final heartbreak, CSKA Moscow have made their long awaited return to the championship game.
Thanks to 30 points from this season’s Euroleague MVP Nando De Colo, a record points total in a Final Four, 13 to add from Vitaly Fridzon and even a successful marriage proposal on centre court between two CSKA Moscow fans after the third quarter, they managed to defeat fellow Russian rivals Lokomotiv Kuban 88-81 in Berlin on Friday evening.
But there were signs late in the fourth quarter that Lokomotiv would make a game of it and pull CSKA back into what they have been familiar with in their last two semi-final encounters in two years.
Malcolm Delaney pulled the deficit back to 84-79 with less than a minute remaining and even earlier than that Ryan Broekhoff could have made it a four-point game had he made his open three, but CSKA weathered the storm and iced the game from the foul line.
“I had a good game because my team played well,” said De Colo. “We respected what we wanted to do on the court, played together and I tried to do what I did all season: be aggressive.”
“There’s been plenty of times where we have played in the consolation game which is tough to do,” CSKA Moscow guard Aaron Jackson added. “I’m so happy that it’s off our backs and we can compete in the championship game.”
CSKA led from start to finish, and ultimately took advantage of Lokomotiv’s early game nerves, which were clear for all to see. Neither team played to their potential but to be the best, you have to win these types of contests. CSKA proved that.
“The first quarter was very bad for us,” said Lokomotiv coach Georgios Bartzokas. “We were slow in every action in the first quarter. For most of the guys it was their first experience of playing in a Final Four, and CSKA has a team with many guys with experience in many Final Fours. The first quarter was very bad. We competed very well in the last three quarters, but it was not enough.”
Delaney led Lokomotiv Kuban with 26 points.
Despite a sloppy opening from both teams, CSKA managed to open up an early 9-0 lead, keeping Lokomotiv at bay for the first three minutes before Delaney opened the debutants account.
But despite forcing turnovers and putting Kuban’s lone bright spark Delaney on the bench with two fouls, the Muscovites were not able to pull clear of Lokomotiv, who traded buckets with their Russian counterparts until De Colo hit the final six points for CSKA to give them a 23-12 advantage after one.
Lokomotiv started the second on a 6-0 burst, rendering CSKA scoreless for nearly four minutes but it didn’t phase Moscow, as thanks to veterans Fridzon and Andrey Vorontsevich, they hit back to see their lead balloon to 38-23 thanks to a three by Vorontsevich with 3:05 in the half.
Lokomotiv though, struggling to make their shots ended the half on a 6-0 run to narrow CSKA’s lead to 47-37 at half-time.
It was a lead that CSKA barely managed to keep intact for stages of the third quarter despite pressure from Lokomotiv. However, that burden that they put on the Muscovites paid off as Kuban shrunk the deficit to 60-54, giving them some momentum.
But CSKA didn’t shy away and De Colo kept his side in control at 68-59, despite a buzzer-beating three off the backboard from Draper.
CSKA managed to stretch their lead to 82-67 with 4:01 left with a baseline jam from Victor Khryapa; appearing in his tenth Final Four and that seemed to give CSKA the comfort that they needed. But there was one more twist left for them to endure.
And they did.