Zalgiris: The people’s favourite

As time wound down in Kaunas, Zalgiris’ Axel Toupane stood at the free throw line, with fatigued players around him and fans clad in a sea of green on their feet, some embracing, some even crying. He was about to bring to a close a physical EuroLeague playoff series against Olympiacos with a result that his side and supporters will never forget.

Toupane comfortably sunk both free throws down without any pressure on him. Miss or make, it was his time, it was Zalgiris’ moment. For the first time since 1999, they were EuroLeague Final Four bound. The celebrations had begun with head coach Sarunas Jasikevicus crying tears of joy. He had led teams in previous years as a player, now he is leading them as a coach.

“It’s crazy, it’s unbelievable,” Toupane said afterwards.

“Nobody would have thought this at the beginning of the season except for us, the coaching staff and players. Just simply by taking one game at a time, we have gotten so far. Now we have two more games. After you see something like that, anything is possible. I am just happy, really proud.

“We didn’t wait for them to react or anything like that, we came ready to play. We brought energy, we were aggressive from the beginning. And then we played with the lead the whole game. Sometimes we struggle to play with the lead, but tonight we did great.”


FENERBAHCE VS ZALGIRIS – REGULAR SEASON HIGHLIGHTS


Almost three weeks removed from that memorable 101-91 win over powerhouses Olympiacos in Kaunas, which sealed a 3-1 series win and the mood hasn’t dropped, Zalgiris’ fans are still in celebration mode – and rightfully so, but secretly – so are many neutrals that follow the EuroLeague.

Zalgiris’ passage to Belgrade has been well documented with many touting their route to be a Cinderella story. Being matched up with Olympiacos, many actually saw hope. Not only were they coming into the post-season in good form, having won three of their last four but they had done the season double over the side from Piraeus.

For loyalists, who love the EuroLeague, it was nothing personal against Olympiacos, a team who themselves were the people’s favourites in 2012 when they magically came back from 19 points down in the championship game to put CSKA Moscow to the sword in one of the most fondly remembered EuroLeague contests of all time. But the people’s crown was long overdue to change hands.

Not only was it good for Zalgiris to advance to the Final Four, but it’s good for the EuroLeague, whose end of season product gets admittedly stale and a little predictable. There was a slight break in the norm in Berlin, two years ago when Baskonia and Lokomotiv Kuban took the fight to seasoned vets CSKA and back-to-back Final Four combatants Fenerbahce, who have since gone on to make it four appearances in a row when they take to the floor in Belgrade, on Friday. But the Final Four has been an event where fans that have knowledge of the competition could rightfully predict three or even all four of the sides after a couple of rounds.

Last year’s Final Four, despite the memorable post-game celebrations at the Sinan Erdem Dome, was headlined by the same four teams that shared the stage in 2015, three of them in 2013 and again this year with two sides competing in 2014 and 2016.

So with at the most three of the four teams in this year’s Final Four being involved in some way from 2012 onwards, plus with CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce looking assured to rule the roost over the coming years unless teams dig deep into their pockets or find attractive sponsors. Neutrals will always look for that Cinderella story to emerge. This year, it’s Zalgiris, who will square off against the champions, Fenerbahce in the opening game of the Final Four. A game that many feel should have been on last, as it is the most attractive of the two games played and will feature undoubtedly the two biggest sets of supporters in Belgrade.

Despite facing the EuroLeague champions, who will have a large contingent of fans wearing the yellow and blue stripes with pride, Zalgiris will have their own sea of green and the pride of Lithuania behind them. They are underdogs when the game tips-off on Friday. But they will have the community of Kaunas, Lithuania and even the neutrals cheering them on.

“We can be underdogs, that’s normal to think because we don’t have experience, it is our first Final Four,” said Zalgiris’ Edgaras Ulanovas.

“Fenerbahce, CSKA, Real Madrid are huge teams who have been at the Final Four for many years. But we got into the playoffs, we believed in ourselves, we fought like crazy and we kept thinking: ‘Why not? Why not?’ We are not one of those teams that will come and watch what others do. We are going to try our best and show what we can do. We will fight. We are not going to be spectators at the Final Four, that’s for sure.”