It was a critical battle in the closest race ever to reach the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs. The eighth-ranked team, Zenit St Petersburg, took on the ninth-ranked, TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz. If anyone needed a reminder of what the EuroLeague is all about, here it is: teams fight until the end and nothing can be taken for granted until the final buzzer.
Baskonia proved that at Sibur Arena, in what arguably has become one of the biggest comebacks in competition history. Zenit dominated most of the way and by the time KC Rivers buried a three-pointer, the Russian powerhouse led 72-58 with over 4 minutes left. Most teams would have given up, but Baskonia didn't quit and managed to rally past Zenit in unbelievable fashion.
Achille Polonara got the comeback started with a deep three-pointer. Pierria Henry drew an offensive foul which allowed Alec Peters to score at the other end. When Peters dove for a loose ball to find Rokas Giedraitis for a bomb from downtown, Baskonia was halfway there, trailing 72-66 with over 2 minutes left.
Another defensive stop got the ball back. Henry missed, but Polonara grabbed the offensive rebound and found him again for an off-balance three-point play. Luca Vildoza collected a steal, raced downcourt and missed, but once again Polonara was there to get the rebound, put it in, draw a foul and hit the and-one free throw after a Zenit timeout.
Ponitka missed around the basket, which gave Baskonia an opportunity to take the lead. Polonara, who led Baskonia's comeback, forced a double-team situation in the low post and fed Vildoza for a corner triple that gave his team a 72-75 lead. Kevin Pangos missed the layup and Rokas Giedraitis put the final touches on Baskonia's work of art, capping a 0-19 run from the foul line and hitting a floater in the final seconds to fix the final score, 75-79.
Baskonia had lost a game in similar circumstances in Round 6 against FC Barcelona, when it led 71-61 and had possession with 3:30 left and eventually lost 71-72.
"Sometimes it takes the end of the game to go on a big run, shooting-wise. Luca [Vildoza] hit some big shots at the end. Rokas [Giedraitis] hit a big shot at the end," Peters said after the game. "It's important for us to know, at the ends of games, that we can close out these things."
When the dust settled, Baskonia had set a club record for its biggest score difference in a fourth-quarter on the road. It outscored Zenit 16-34. Its previous record was 16 (19-35) in a 77-78 road win against Maccabi Tel Aviv, a game that Baskonia won with a big three-pointer by Elmer Bennett on March 6, 2002.
It was also Baskonia's biggest comeback to win a regular-season game. Zenit led 59-41 in the third quarter, but Baskonia ended up winning. Its biggest comeback ever was in the Top 16 on April 10, 2014, when it rallied from a 20-point difference to beat FC Barcelona 86-97 at Palau Blaugrana. Andres Nocioni led the way with a career-high 37 points.
"The big change came when we played with five small guys and changed our defense. We switched in every pick-and-roll and it was a big problem for Zenit," head coach Dusko Ivanovic said after the game. "This is how we must play for 40 minutes, but we played only 10 minutes that way."
Baskonia's win means that no team can qualify for the playoffs in Round 30. Both AX Armani Exchange Milan and Anadolu Efes Istanbul had chances to punch their playoff ticket, but all possible combinations involved Zenit beating Baskonia. As such, the playoff race continues with seven spots still available with just four games left!