CSKA closes series to claim fourth VTB title

PHOTO: cskabasket.com

Defending champs hold their nerve to edge Lokomotiv Kuban and lift the trophy

CSKA Moscow wrapped up the 2012-13 campaign in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, beating hosts Lokomotiv Kuban 59-54 Friday in Game 4 of the VTB United League finals. The red-and-blues won the series 3-1, clinching their second trophy of the season. In late April they won their 20th Russian title in the post-Soviet era.

Following Thursday’s loss CSKA faced an energized Lokomotiv team, eager to win and send the series back to Moscow for a decisive Game 5. Moreover, CSKA’s roster troubles continued as doctors ruled out captain Viktor Khryapa with a sprained ankle, the aftermath of an awkward landing on the opponent’s foot in Game 3. The entire series was a test of character as CSKA closed ranks to plug holes in the lineup. Having entered the playoffs with a full roster, the Army Men kept losing “troops” on a regular basis. The ones missing were not just soldiers, but  top brass – on May 26 starting point guard Milos Teodosic limped off the court after injuring a calf muscle in Game 2 of the semifinal series against Khimki and five days later another starter, center Alexander Kaun, sat out the semis’ key Game 5 with a back injury. The Serbian-Russian duo missed the finals, too, and Khryapa’s absence Friday meant the squad needed to regroup and toughen up.

Last summer’s heralded signing, U.S. forward Sonny Weems has had a season full of ups and downs, but lived up to his reputation of an unstoppable scorer Friday, finishing the game with 24 points. Following the initial 7-2 run, CSKA dropped the lead in the fifth minute and struggled to regain it over the next 23. A couple of times in the first half Ettore Messina’s squad trailed by 10 points, but managed to cut the hosts’ lead to six at the end of the second quarter, 27-33. CSKA worked hard to close the gap and finally wiped out the deficit late in the third – Aaron Jackson made a three-pointer to lift his team by two, 47-45.

When Weems hit a jumper with 2:20 left to make it 56-50, the victory seemed almost wrapped up, but Mantas Kalnietis nailed a three and then had a chance to cut it to one from the free-throw line. He converted only one attempt, and Jackson then sealed it for CSKA, making both of his free throws to put it out of Lokomotiv’s reach – 58-54 with 21 seconds to go.