Friday night was a tough game for Zenit St Petersburg from many different angles.
First, the Russian powerhouse faced FC Barcelona, which had a 22-6 record in the 2019-20 EuroLeague and added Nick Calathes to a core of players which was already working well. Second, Zenit was short-handed: prior to the game, the club announced that two of its players, Anton Pushkov and Austin Hollins, as well as staff member Andrei Kozlov, had received positive PCR results for COVID-19. All of them were isolated and therefore unavailable. Arturas Gudaitis, Dmitry Khvostov and Vlad Truhskin were also not available by game-time, so Zenit only had 10 players at Coach Xavi Pascual's disposal.
Barcelona started the game with great focus and soon built a 2-10 lead, but Zenit had its secret weapon in Alex Poythress, a newcomer to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague this season. He provided the energy required to bring Zenit back into the game, with high-flying blocks, big baskets and a one-handed alley-oop that you will surely see when the best plays of the season are chosen.
Poythress took Zenit on his shoulders, finishing with 16 points on 7-of-12 two-point shots and 2-of-2 free throws, adding 11 rebounds, a steal and 2 blocks for a PIR of 22.
Even with that, Barcelona still led 63-68 with just over 3 minutes remaining. Zenit improved its defense but needed answers at the other end of the court. That's when K.C. Rivers stepped up to dynamite the game, to the delight of almost 3,000 fans at Yubileyny Sports Palace. Zenit is Rivers's sixth EuroLeague team and, at age 33, with a EuroLeague championship under his belt, he knew his time had come.
First Rivers hit a wild step-back three-point shot and then, after Poythress hustled hard to get a put-back basket, Rivers struck again from downtown. All of a sudden, Zenit led 71-68 and Barcelona never truly recovered.
"It was a great team win," Poythress said after the game. "You know, everyone stepped up big in the second half, our vets took control, we played great defense. Coach put us in a great position to win, and we just had a lot of heart out there. We didn't want to give up, and it showed at the end."
It was also a special win for Coach Pascual, who grew up with Barcelona and coached his former club for the best part of nine seasons. "Of course, we are happy. Especially for the players, it was a very difficult week, a very difficult last 24 hours. It was very difficult to manage the situation, but I'm very happy for all the players," he said after the game.
When the 2019-20 season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Anadolu Efes Istanbul led the standings at 24-4 and Barcelona was tied for second place at 22-6. In just two rounds, Zenit has been able to beat both those teams, overcoming obstacles to be more competitive than ever. It hopes to keep its great momentum going in Spain next week, with back-to-back road games against TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and Valencia Basket.