If you looked back over European basketball history, things did not look good for AX Armani Exchange Milan ahead of its road game against Real Madrid on Friday night.
Real had won nine consecutive home games against the Italian powerhouse before the showdown. When Milan entered the floor, it was 1-16 against Real in the Spanish capital, including the 1967 EuroLeague Championship Game. That day, April 1, 1967, Real beat Milan 91-83 behind 29 points from Emiliano Rodriguez to claim its fourth continental crown. Milan's only previous win in Madrid came on November 11, 2003, 61-62, in the EuroCup (then-called ULEB Cup).
But then again, history doesn't win basketball games and despite arriving in Madrid without forwards Shavon Shields and Vladimir Micov, Milan registered a 76-80 victory in the Spanish capital, playing one of its best games of the season.
"Of course, we are very pleased. I think we never won here as a club or it maybe happened once many years ago. It is a big win for us," Milan head coach Ettore Messina said after the game. "We are a little bit short in the rotation and my players deserve to relax and enjoy a great win."
Messina was going up against his former team, as was playmaker Sergio Rodriguez, who the earned EuroLeague MVP honor with Los Blancos in the 2013-14 campaign. Rodriguez played for Real from 2010 to 2016, reaching four Final Fours, three Championship Games and lifting the trophy in 2015. On this occasion, though, Rodriguez came back to haunt his former club as he led Milan with 17 points, burying a critical three-pointer and a pair of free throws in the final 27 seconds to make sure his team sealed the win.
But it wasn’t all Rodriguez and, as Coach Messina said, others players had to step up to replace Micov. Riccardo Moraschini started at small forward and finished the game with 10 rebounds, a new career-high. He had totalled 11 rebounds in his 9 previous EuroLeague appearances this season. Gigi Datome was equally solid, scoring 9 points without misses and getting 5 rebounds for a PIR of 15 in less than 15 minutes on the floor.
Milan played its best basketball in the opening 6 minutes of the third quarter, getting defensive stops and sharing the ball well on offense. The game was tied, 39-39, at halftime, but Malcolm Delaney had 7 points in those minutes, Kaleb Tarczewski scored twice in the paint, then Zach LeDay and Kevin Punter each buried a three-pointer to boost the guests' lead to 41-58. That 2-19 run allowed Milan to keep control of the game for good.
Most important, the win allowed Milan to bounce back as a team after a tough overtime home loss against CSKA Moscow. In that Round 17 game, CSKA out-rebounded Milan 33-60 and pulled down 30 offensive boards - a EuroLeague all-time record. Against Real, though, Milan only allowed 5 offensive rebounds, that is, six times fewer than against CSKA. Milan managed to outrebound Real by 31-35 after getting 27 rebounds less than its opponent barely one week ago.
"After last week, in which we were killed on the boards, we won on rebounds tonight and that is very important," Messina said in the press conference room. "It gave us confidence in certain moments of the game. It is a very important win. We hope to keep growing in order to achieve our goal, which is making it to the playoffs."
With the win in Madrid, Milan moved up to 10-7 and now ranks seventh in the standings. It plays four of its next five games at home, too, and this is when Milan has to capitalize on the seven road victories it has recorded so far this season. It Milan stays solid at Mediolanum Forum, its initial goal to reach the playoffs should easily be reachable.