After Nando De Colo scored in the lane to give Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul a 64-66 lead at the end of the third quarter against his former team in Game 1 of their Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs series on Wednesday, the numbers were not looking great for the home team. After all, CSKA Moscow had lost seven of the 10 games this season when trailing after three quarters. And Fenerbahce had won 16 of the 19 games in which it led entering the fourth.
Those numbers mattered very little to Coach Dimitris Itoudis. According to CSKA guard Daniel Hackett, in the break before the fourth quarter, his coach simply told the team to "keep playing hard, keep executing, trust in the game plan and stay focused."
And that is exactly what happened. Over the final 10 minutes, CSKA played great defense, denied De Colo the ball, cut down on turnovers and made big shots to outscore the visitors 28-10 and claim a 92-76 victory.
With the go-ahead basket at the end of the fourth quarter, De Colo reached 27 points, which set a Fenerbahce record for points in a playoff game. He would not add to it as CSKA held him scoreless with 2 missed shots, 1 assist and 1 turnover in the fourth quarter, during which the former EuroLeague MVP played 8 minutes.
"The problem we had defending Nando, a great scorer obviously and a great player overall scoring 22 points, then you have pretty much the picture of the first half. Then in the third quarter and the fourth quarter, we did a tremendous job of that," Itoudis attested in the post-game press conference. "We kept believing what we were doing. We put a lot of pressure on their creators, especially on Nando, everybody playing great defense. We forced turnovers and didn’t turn over the ball... And made big shots."
With De Colo neutralized, Fenerbahce committed 6 fourth-quarter turnovers after turning the ball over just 9 times in the first 30 minutes. The visitors made just 2 of 7 two-pointers and 2 of 7 threes and had just 1 assist in the fourth quarter. CSKA connected on 6 of 11 threes in the final 10 minutes. What's more, CSKA also outrebounded Fenerbahce 13-7 in the final stanza.
Another thing that played into CSKA's hands was that Fenerbahce was shorthanded with five rotation players in addition to head coach Igor Kokoskov missing either due to injuries or COVID-19.
Assistant coach Erdem Can, who stepped into Kokoskov's shoes, made it a point to praise his players' fighting spirit after the game. He also explained: "We were not smart enough and we were gassed a little bit at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter."
Fenerbahce's shorter rotation resulted in three players spending more than 30 minutes on the floor. De Colo played 34:50, Danilo Barthel 33:34 and Lorenzo Brown 30:10. Only two CSKA players even reached 23 minutes! That meant the CSKA men had fresher legs down the stretch and they knew how to make it count for a win and a 1-0 series lead.