ONE AT A TIME: The men in yellow snatched victory from defeat against Roanne Baskets to advance in the Eurochallenge tournament.
RIGA - The Ventspils basketball club and their fans have been on a stomach-churning roller coaster ride this season and, following an unthinkable comeback last week, that ride is set to continue for at least another fortnight. Playing in Europe’s third-tier club basketball competition, the Eurochallenge, Ventspils produced a miraculous finish on Feb. 28 to book their place in a best-of-three quarter-final series against Hungarian club Szolnoki Olaj beginning on April 13.
Ventspils were sent home at the quarter-final stage of the same tournament last season.
The Gundars Vetra-coached side went into their final round of 16 clash at home against Roanne Baskets knowing that victory would confirm their spot in the final eight of the tournament. In the unlikely event that group leaders Ewe Baskets lost on the road in the Netherlands to Leiden, Ventspils still had a chance of moving from Group I into the quarters as one of the top two teams in the group.
It was not an outcome on which they would have liked to rely on, given that prior to hosting Ewe Baskets, Leiden’s only other victory in the round of 16 came on Jan. 17 at the expense of Ventspils when the Dutch club overturned a 23-point second-half deficit.
But trailing Roanne Baskets by eight points with 23 seconds remaining on the clock, it appeared that Gundars Vetra and his team would be sweating the outcome of the game taking place in the Netherlands.
However, the men in yellow were not about to throw in the towel and with Ronalds Zakis rebounding a missed free-throw before laying it up moments before the buzzer sounded, Ventspils had remarkably completed a comeback to send the game into overtime.
Todd Abernethy then lead his team in the extra frame, scoring seven points, including a crucial pair of free-throws with the clock showing three seconds to play.
Abernethy finished the game with a team-high and personal season-high 18 points on five-for-seven shooting from the field, whilst hero at the end of regular time, Zakis, ended the night with four points and three rebounds.
The current Latvian league leaders then learned that the win was not necessary for them to qualify for the last eight, with Ewe Baskets suffering a shock loss to knock them out of contention. This means that Ventspils has now unexpectedly qualified as the top team from their group, meaning that if required, the third game in the best-of-three series against Szolnoki Olaj will be played in front of a home audience on April 20.
Given their form at the back end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 in both the Baltic Basketball League (BBL) and Eurochallenge, it would have taken a brave person to bet on Ventspils to make it as far as they have in both competitions.
After giving up a 24-point lead in the final quarter in a BBL game back in October, the team further lost direction late in November following the departure of starting point guard, Janis Strelnieks.
Following the departure of the 22-year-old, the men from the coastal city lost four of their next six games in the BBL and three of their next five games in the Eurobasket, which included blowing a 23-point lead against Zeiden.
However, the ship now appears to be righted with individuals on the team beginning to better understand their roles post-Strelnieks. This was evidenced in their comeback win over Roanne Basket, their fourth Eurobasket win on the trot, and the fact the team has also qualified for the impending BBL quarter-finals. The inclusion of import Mamadi Diane is to their lineup in January has helped bring some consistency to the team, whilst Abernethy also appears more assured at leading the team from the point.
Now that they are in the quarter-finals of Eurochallenge, Latvian basketball expert Andrejs Silins believes Ventspils stand a good chance of making it through to the final four. Silins told The Baltic Times that following some of their troubles earlier in the season, Ventspils’ “last victory [vs. Roanne Baskets] which allowed them to go through showed that the team has character.”
“Szolnoki Olaj has more experienced guys, especially their foreign players, but it will be up to which team will display more of a team-basketball,” Silins added.
The sportacentrs.com reporter believes that the key to Ventspils’ success will be their ability to shut down the Hungarian club’s playmaker Obie Trotter. To date, the point guard has been averaging a shade under 17 points a night in Eurochallenge action, the fifth best point-per-game return in the competition.
“If Ventspils can do that, they have a great chance of making it to Final Four,” Silins concluded.