Union Olimpija kept the home fires burning and its handle on first place by coming back to win a 72-68 thriller against Power Electronics Valencia before 12,600 fans in Ljubljana on Wednesday. Olimpija improved to, 4-1 in Group D, where it shared first place entering the week, while Valencia fell to 1-4 under interim coach Chechu Mulero. New head coach Svetislav Pesic was due to travel back with the team to Valencia after the game.
Olimpija nursed small leads from the second quarter onward but Valencia rallied to within 70-68 with a half-minute to play before Vlado Ilievski’s free throws ensured the victory. Kevinn Pinkney paced the winners with 14 points and 7 boards, while oran Jagodnik added 12. For Valencia, Nando De Colo posted 16 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists against his former team. The visitors also got 13 points from Omar Cook and 12 from Robertas Javtokas, but were doomed by crucial turnovers down the stretch.
Valencia got off to a good start, showing intense defense and hitting shots on the way to a 2-8 lead, but a Pinkney triple and Jagodnik layup flip-flopped the lead to Olimpija, 9-8. With an added hop in their step after the coaching change, however, Valencia was a force defensively, effectively harassing Olimpija into 8 first-quarter turnovers and sparking a 4-13 run, fueled by 6 points from Dusko Savanovic. The defense led to a good transition game, as the visitors sprinted down the court like gazelles after every steal or defensive rebound. With Olimpija unable to get into a flow, the quarter ended with Valencia up 13-21.
Olimpija regrouped to start the second as Pinkney hit from beyond the arc again to spark a 7-0 run to within 20-21. The pace of the game slowed as both defenses keyed on the perimeter, although Pinkney kept laboring for buckets in the paint for Olimpija. The long-distance shots just weren’t there for either team, as Valencia opted for inside passes and got to the line often. With Cook directing the show, Javtokas found position in the low post and fought an intense one-on-one battle with Pinkney. The game had morphed into a grind-it-out, lock-down affair with constant scoring changes. That only changed in the closing seconds, when Olimpija finally broke through with a pair of Sasu Salin free throws and a Kenny Gregory breakaway dunk to take a 35-32 edge into the break.
With the sharpshooters at bay during the first half, the beginning of the second seemed like as good a time as any for Saso Ozbolt to hit his first triple of the night, just before another bomb by Jagodnik widened Olimpija’s lead to 43-38. With Cook playing heavy minutes at the point for Valencia, De Colo slid to the off-guard spot and delivered big-time scoring, while also assisting Rafa Martinez for his first triple at 46-45. In somewhat of a role reversal from the first half, long-range shooting was the norm now, as Salin also netted his first three to keep Olimpija ahead 54-50 after 30 minutes.
With the crowd rocking and the stakes high, Gregory slashed the basket with authority to start the fourth quarter, while Jagodnik hit a triple and Giorgi Shermadini went to work in the post and dunked home an offensive rebound for a 61-53 advantage. With Valencia relying on Cook mid-range jumpers that weren’t dropping and a full-court press, Olimpija was able to will itself to the line and stay ahead entering the final four minutes with a 7 point lead. Olimpija head coach Jure Zdvoc isolated Gregroy on Victor Claver some, but a killer play came on a Ilievski’s breakaway dunk off a steal from De Colo that made it 65-56 with 2 minutes left. Valencia tried to make it interesting with an impressive individual performance by Cook, who scored 10 straight points in the final 2 minutes. That set up a 70-68 scoreboard as Valencia got possession with 33 seconds left. But now De Colo, arguably his team’s best player until then, could not deliver in crunch time, as he lost the ball to Olimpija’s press and fouled Ilievski, who hit both free throws for the final score, 72-68, ending another home thriller in Olimpija’s favor.