Many people expected Euroleague champions Olympiacos to comfortably see-off a Stelmet Zielona Gora side in their own backyard on Thursday night.
The game instead proved that anything can happen in European club basketball’s premier league. The Polish side took the game to the Reds, knowing they had nothing to lose against the veterans of the Euroleague and with a team stacked with game-winners and Euroleague legends in the making.
“It was an authentic Euroleague game, which we deserved to win and it is really tough to accept that we didn’t,” Zielona Gora coach Mihailo Uvalin said afterwards.
It was indeed a tough one to take. They have been dubbed by some bloggers around the circuit as the “Euroleague tourists” and the “Euroleague’s whipping boys”, but after defeating Montepaschi Siena in week three, taking Galatasaray to the limit and now this courageous showing against Olympiacos, it shows that despite what chances you have been given, they mean nothing if you put it all out there on the court.
Serbian coach Uvalin wasn’t holding much back in his official statement to the Euroleague either.
“I am very happy and proud of an effort, which came to maximum and the way that all my players tried to win,” he said. “Any team that wins a game deserves it, but from the other side I think that we played a great game and showed big character and potential.
“There are some details which decided the result in the last seconds, but now it‘s over. I think that Olympiacos underestimated my team and they didn’t have the proper rhythm, but they weren’t punished for that. At the beginning of the season, everybody considered Zielona Gora as the worst team here, but we worked hard to get the respect and change this general opinion.”
Olympiacos won 79-77 to keep their unbeaten record alive, and even though coach Georgios Bartzokas strongly stated that his side were prepared for the Poles and that his side played fantastic basketball to earn them the win and preserve the unbeaten record, which makes them near on certainties for the Top 16, their performance to some and especially how the game was seen, had Olympiacos being at times showcasing lazy basketball. To some players, in the first quarter, it looked like they simply had to show up to win.
A 22-11 scoreline after the first ten minutes ended that.
Amazingly instead of pressing on and trying to narrow the gap the Reds did no such thing. Instead Stelmet kept up the intensity, and Olympiacos’ lethargic defence was evident. Acie Law then started directing the hosts offensively and fed Georgios Printezis for a few scores, but they struggled to contain Aaron Cel, who was seemingly having his way with Olympiacos’ defence.
After a competitive third quarter, where Olympiacos trimmed the deficit, Zielona Gora continued to believe. They arrived in Greece playing with no pressure. However, they believed in themselves and pushed the champions to the limit, although it took that very third quarter for the fans inside the Peace and Friendship Stadium to see what Olympiacos can actually do.
Vassilis Spanoulis, who hadn’t scored a field goal in the first half got going early and made the third period hos own. Last season’s Euroleague MVP was everywhere, he attacked the hoop at will, fed Printezis and then scored himself with a mid-range jumper to trim it to a four-point game.
Cel though stepped up in the latter stages to make sure the visitors had a surprise 63-55 lead, heading into the final quarter.
You would have expected a similar scoreline from the CSKA Moscow-Partizan game from earlier in the evening, but it was far from it. This unlikely thriller had the possibilities of going to the wire. You could sense it. And it did.
Enter Vangelos Mantazris.
After five lead changes in a crazy final minute, Mantzaris put the game to bed with a three-pointer virtually on the buzzer to spare the blushes and hand Olympiacos the win.
“This is the first time that I bagged a buzzer beater like that and I am very happy because it was a winning three-point shot,” Mantzaris said. “In such a situation you haven’t time to think about the whole thing. You get the ball and just hit it.
“The people like games like that, but we don’t. It comes in a business as usual situation for Olympiacos to win at the end, but sometime we will lose a game like that and it will be painful. It is impossible to win every time with a big shot at the buzzer.”
It might have been business as usual for the champions, but it should have been easier. They made it hard for themselves, and the mentality of simply arriving and expecting to win doesn’t work. Every professional athlete knows that. The third and fourth quarter showings were better but Stelmet Zielona Gora won a lot of doubters over after this game. Take nothing away from that performance.