The Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season rarely gets better than this. Two old rivals fighting to stay alive in the competition, both of them in a win-or-go-home situation, in an outstanding game that goes down to small details in the final minutes. The game between Valencia Basket and TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz could only have been better with a fully-packed La Fonteta pushing Valencia the way it has in big games for more than 30 years.
When the dust settled, Valencia defeated Baskonia 86-81 to stay in the race for the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs. Valencia finished the regular season with a 19-15 record and now must get some help from others to qualify for the playoffs. Baskonia finished with an 18-16 record in 10th place.
Even though the playoff math has been very complicated for many weeks, Valencia has a clear picture of what others need to do in order to qualify. To advance, Valencia needs Zenit St Petersburg to lose at least one of its two remaining games. Zenit hosts Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv on Friday, April 9 and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens in a postponed game from Round 6 on Monday, April 12. If Valencia qualifies, it would be eighth, facing FC Barcelona in the playoffs. If Zenit wins twice, it will go to the playoffs.
Baskonia head coach Dusko Ivanovic also pointed out the importance of small actions down the stretch. "In such a close game, any small details in the final moments can be decisive. But we knew it, me and my players, when we prepared the game, we knew that two things were very important, and they were turnovers and Valencia's offensive rebounds," Coach Ivanovic said. "And we had too many turnovers. I think this was, in general, our weakness tonight."
Indeed, Valencia outrebounded Baskonia 42-30 and grabbed 13 offensive boards. Baskonia committed 17 turnovers, well above its season average (14.0).
Big players rise up to the occasion in big games like this and this is exactly what Derrick Williams did against Baskonia, carrying his team to an important victory. Williams had season-highs in assists (4), steals (4), fouls drawn (6) and PIR (25), leading the way with 16 points on 4-of-4 two-point shooting plus 4 rebounds.
"My teammates, they came ready to play. That is the main thing, all of us. It is not just one person," Williams said after the game. "Hats off to the guys in the locker room, we came ready to play. We made more stops than them and that is how you take wins in this league."
The game came down to the final 2 minutes. After Tadas Sedekerskis hit a corner three-pointer for a 78-77 Baskonia lead. Mike Tobey and Williams made big plays for the hosts. Though both teams made mistakes down the stretch - Williams made only 1 of 4 free throws and Pierria Henry missed two attempts, all in the final 10 seconds - it was Valencia's character and hustle that made the difference.
"That is how the game was: heart was more important than tactics. I am very satisfied with the team because we matched Baskonia's heart and that deserves a lot of credit because we played against a team with the biggest heart in this competition," Valencia head coach Jaume Ponsarnau said after the game. "I think our rebounding work was important. We struggled when we didn't get them and did well when we did."
Valencia now has to wait and see if it will earn a chance to keep fighting for EuroLeague glory. And of course, hope is important, as Klemen Prepelic reminded all Valencia fans after the game. "Hopefully, Maccabi or Panathinaikos is going to surprise Zenit," Prepelic said. "We did our job and now, we have to believe."