Losing its best player, Gustavo Ayon, to a hip injury did not prevent Zenit St Petersburg from starting the second leg of the regular season in winning fashion. In a Russian derby, Zenit went on the road to hold off Khimki Moscow Region 81-83 for the fourth away win of its debut Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season.
Zenit might have finished the first half of the regular season in last place at 4-13. But it also led the Euroleague in offensive rebounds, with 12.0 per game, and on this night at Arena Mytishchi, offensive rebounds once again played a big part in Zenit's success.
"Coach puts a lot of pressure on us for offensive rebounds", Mateusz Ponitka told EuroLeague.TV after the game. "We just try to follow his advice. We go and crash the boards. If we don't get the ball, we try to go back really fast, but today we got a lot of them."
Head coach Joan Plaza's men got 13 offensive boards to improve their season average, but more importantly, 9 of those came in the second half. Extra possessions killed Khimki's offensive rhythm, especially in the third quarter, and second-chances helped Zenit open a 16-point margin at the start of the fourth quarter. It proved to be too large of a margin to overcome even though Khimki found a way to rally back.
"It is our focus this year to be one of the best defensive rebounding teams, and to be one of the best offensive rebounding teams," power forward Will Thomas said at courtside after the victory.
Ponitka got 4 offensive boards, perfectly aiding Thomas, who was unstoppable scoring 20 points while making 7 of 8 two-point shots, his only three-point attempt, and all 3 of his free throws. He also pulled down 8 rebounds, including 2 on offense, for a career-high PIR of 30.
Khimki got 30 points from Alexey Shved, and 17 from Janis Timma, but it was not enough against Zenit, which despite losing its best individual performer, showed that its team strengths remain. Although it still occupies last place, Zenit will continue to be a tough opponent the rest of the season.