It would have been understandable if Zalgiris Kaunas faced its Round 13 game against Panathinaikos OPAP Athens in something other than a positive mood. After a promising 5-1 start to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season, Zalgiris had lost six consecutive games and earlier last week learned that starting guard Steve Vasturia would miss the next two months with an injury. Thus, it didn't look like the best time to visit Athens, a place where Zalgiris had a 1-13 record against Panathinaikos until Friday.
But, defying all odds, Zalgiris took a much-needed win at OAKA by holding off Panathinaikos 69-81. In its first victory since October 29, Zalgiris never trailed between the tipoff and the final buzzer, not even when Panathinaikos launched several comeback attempts, including a 17-7 run to tie the game 50-50 right after halftime. Zalgiris showed a remarkable mental composure at that moment, bouncing back strongly with a 2-17 surge bridging the last two quarters that put the game on ice.
"I'm happy about the fact the win came on the defensive end," head coach Martin Schiller said in the post-game press conference. "The second most important fact is that when Panathinaikos came out after halftime with a strong run, we could stop that run and actually played the third quarter even, at 17-17, which was very important for our mental standpoint."
Such mental toughness was something that might not have been expected from a team mired in such a bad streak. Nonetheless, the Zalgiris coaches and players retained full trust in themselves, and that's what made the difference.
"We have competed in the last games; we have competed every game we had. We had problems in Tel Aviv, real problems, but we felt that we had competed in every other game and that we had real chances to win," Schiller recounted. "It's really game-by-game. If you get into a losing streak, when you get the win it's not that you necessarily did something different."
Two Zalgiris players who best represented that superb level of self-confidence were Marius Grigonis and Rokas Jokubaitis. Grigonis, the October MVP, shined in the first half by scoring 18 points on 4-for-5 three-point shooting, prevailing against every Panathinaikos defender to boost his team to a 33-43 halftime lead. He finished 24 points on the strength of 6 triples made, but joked afterward, "I still missed two shots, so it's not perfect."
"We are going to every game to fight and to compete," he added. "We had a rough recent past, but I'm just happy for the win."
The 20-year old Jokubaitis assumed a key role later by scoring all 10 of his points in the game's last quarter. Having struggled early in the game with 2 missed shots and 5 turnovers, Jokubaitis proved fearless when Panathinaikos launched its last comeback attempt. After scoring a corner three and another bucket early in the final period to make it 52-67, he showed up with a timely three-point play and short jumper that stopped an 8-0 Panathinaikos run and gave Zalgiris all the cushion it needed, with 4 minutes left, for the victory.