Asked last week about their chances to beat FC Barcelona in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs, many at Zenit St Petersburg seemed to be pretty confident.
"We will be the same team that we were during the season," Zenit head coach Xavi Pascual said before the series. "We will try to find our possibilities… and to play serious in all situations."
"We don't feel like we're done," Kevin Pangos said.
"We're not finished," added Will Thomas.
The task seemed difficult. First of all, no eighth-seeded team had ever won Game 1 in a EuroLeague Playoffs series. And since the playoff format was adopted in 2005, Barcelona had an 8-1 record in Game 1 when playing at home.
Current circumstances were not on Zenit's side, either, as team captain Mateusz Ponitka was injured over the weekend and did not travel to Barcelona. He is expected to miss the entire series. Then, midway through the fourth quarter on Wednesday, center Arturas Gudaitis rolled his ankle and left the game, too, leaving Zenit without two of its top four weapons in terms of performance index rating from the regular season.
None of that mattered, as Zenit used an extraordinary first half to dominate most of the game and managed to find its most experienced players in crunch time to seal the outcome, getting a good-as-gold 74-76 victory to steal the home-court advantage in the series.
Zenit played close to perfection in the first half, shooting the ball with excellent percentages (63.6% 2FG, 66.7% 3FG), dishing 9 assists, and committing just 3 turnovers. Pangos was at the center of it all, leading Zenit against his former team with 14 points, 0 missed shots, 3 rebounds, and 6 assists for a PIR of 26 at the break, when the visitors led 34-48.
"Barcelona is a great team. I was completely sure that they would be back in the game. It was obvious that it would happen," Pascual said after the game.
He was right, as Barcelona rallied from that 14-point halftime deficit to take the lead, 72-71, with just 1:09 left. It looked like the game's momentum had switched for good, but Zenit was far from done.
Going into the final minute, Zenit used a long possession that K.C. Rivers capped with a deep three-pointer that landed with 46.5 seconds left. Brandon Davies dunked at the other end, but Pangos answered with a floater that put Zenit ahead for good, 74-76, with 10.7 seconds left. A defensive stop allowed the visitors to seal the historic outcome.
"They are a great team. Obviously, we expected that. We have to respond better in the next couple of games, but we got the win," Pangos said afterward. "Our team fought and that's good. When you get the first win on the road, it is all you can ask, but it is a five-game series, so we have to keep going. We can't stop here, relax and be satisfied."
Pangos has scored at least 10 points and dished at least 5 assists in Zenit's last six games, helping it reach the playoffs first and take a 0-1 lead in the series.
"I believe Kevin Pangos was one of the best 15 players in the EuroLeague Regular Season, from my point of view, even a top 10 player," Pascual said from a press conference room he knows well after his nine seasons leading Barcelona. "He is my extension on the court. We have a perfect connection from the first moment. He knows what I want from him, all the time. He executes it and is our leader. I am very happy for him, for the game he played and the season he is having. He really played at a very high level tonight."
As Rivers said after the game, this series just started, and it could be a long one.
"Right now, you take it game by game. Nothing is crucial. This was war number one. War number two is on Friday," he said. "We have to go back and prepare, see where we made mistakes, and see where we can be better to try to have the same type of outcome."
Zenit will be wise to remember that Barcelona’s sole previous home loss to open a playoff series came against Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz in 2009. Nonetheless, Barcelona won the series 3-2 and remains the only Game 1 home loser to ever rebound and reach the Final Four.