It wasn’t suppose to end this way for CSKA Moscow, a team that boasts NBA starters Andrei Kirilenko and Nenad Krstic and European star Milos Teodosic and could compete in the NBA.
CSKA led for most of Sunday’s Euroleague Final in Istanbul, Turkey. But one dramatic comeback by Olympiakos Piraeus foiled CSKA’s championship aspirations. Trailing CSKA 53-34 midway through the third quarter, Olympiakos dug deep and completed a stunning comeback after Gergios Printezis scored late in the fourth to give the Greek club a 62-61 win to capture its second Euro title.
Having had their budget cut by the economic crisis in Greece, Olympiakos first defied the odds to reach the playoffs and the arrived to the Final Four as the least heralded team to win the showpiece event in Istanbul.
Led by their Serbian coach Dusan Ivkovic, a trophy-laden tactical maestro in his second spell in charge of Olympiakos, the Greek outfit upset 2010 winners Barcelona in the semis before overpowering six-time winners CSKA.
“I have to thank my players, the staff and our incredible fans who stuck with us through the thick and thin, this victory is a result of tremendous will-power and a monumental effort to achieve the impossible,” Ivkovic told reporters.
Cutting an incredibly calm figure after the most dramatic of wins, the 68-year-old coach added: “CSKA were the obvious favorites not just today but throughout the season and it was our iron-clad defense that turned the match.
“Of course it helped that I coach CSKA’s fellow Serbs Milos Teodosic and Nenad Krstic in the national team, the former got off to a great start and was their best player but we staged a hardly explicable fourth quarter fightback.”
CSKA romped to a 25-13 lead thanks to its defense and three-pointers by Teodosic, who was a second-team All-Euroleague selection in 2012. His teammates Kirilenko and Krstic were first-team selections, and Kirilenko — who played for the Utah Jazz for a decade — was named the regular season MVP. The team looked in complete control against a club it had defeated handily during the regular season, winning one game by a whopping 32-point margin in Moscow.
But the CSKA offense came to a screeching halt at crunch time while Vassilis Spanoulis, named the tournament’s most valuable player, started hitting jump-shots and dishing out assists to his teammates that led to easy baskets. For those who may recall, Spanoulis was on Greece’s men’s national team that scored a stunning upset over a United States team led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony in the 2006 FIBA World Championships, so the Greek guard is no stranger to slaying basketball giants.
After forward Ramunas Siskauskas missed two foul shots with 10 seconds left, Spanoulis notched his final assist in the game’s most important moment when he found an unmarked Printezis on the baseline to beat the buzzer and throw 5,000 ecstatic Olympiakos fans into a frenzy.
“Spanoulis was our driving force throughout the Final Four but it was our team spirit and die-hard attitude that turned the match on its head,” Olympiakos center Pero Antic told Reuters.
“We never stopped believing in ourselves even when we were 19 points down, we knew we could get back into the game if we carried on playing strong defense and we got our reward.”
For Ivkovic, it was a gratifying finale as he won the second Euroleague title with Olympiakos after guiding them to their first success in Europe’s elite competition in 1997. “Now we will party, have a few days’ rest and prepare for the Greek league’s final series against Panathinaikos, it will be like another Final Four,” said Antic.
“With a bit of luck, we will repeat the trick and give Ivkovic the same kind of joy he tasted 15 years ago.”
Reuters contributed to this report.