HIT THE SHOWERS: Though favorites to win, Ventspils bowed out of Eurochallenge losing in three games to Hungary’s Szolnoki Olaj.
RIGA - Ventspils has blown a prime opportunity to qualify for the Final Four of a major European club basketball competition for just the second time in the club’s history, losing the decisive third game of their Eurochallenge quarter-final series against Hungarian club Szolnoki Olaj on Thursday night.
Having also made the quarter finals of Europe’s third-tier club competition last year, Gundars Vetras’s men were in a prime position to go one step further this season following a comprehensive 82-63 victory in the opening encounter of their three-game series on March 13.
Despite losing on the road in the second game 82-76, the men in yellow still remained odds-on favorites to win the third and deciding game and claim the series back in Ventspils on Tuesday night.
Early signs were that they would do just that, running out to a 24-13 lead by the end of the opening quarter after previously leading by as much as 14.
However, in the second frame the dynamics of the game began to change as the visitors forced their way back into the game with point guard Obie Trotter sinking a lay-up to have the deficit cut to four when the half-time buzzer sounded.
Ventspils continued to crumble following the half, scoring just 12 points in the third quarter, allowing the guests to take a two-point buffer into the deciding 10 minutes.
The Latvian domestic runners-up came out of their slumber in the final quarter and on an Arturs Berzins free-throw with under three-and-a-half minutes remaining, Ventspils had their noses back in front by three, and with momentum working in their favor it appeared they had used their get-out-of-jail for free card.
But then Trotter, who had been recognized as the key factor before the series, tied scores back up with a three-pointer before Hristo Nikolav all but sealed the game for the visitors, scoring his team’s next 10 points to give Szolnoki Olaj a healthy six-point lead with just over a minute left to play.
It was a deficit that proved too big to overcome for Ventspils, who were left ruing less-than-perfect second and third quarters that had allowed their Hungarian guests back into the game.
Trotter finished the night with a game-high 20 points whilst for the home team Steven Gray lead the way off the bench with 17 points.
Had Ventspils managed to make the Final Four, it would have marked the first time that they had made it to the final weekend of a major European club tournament since 2003, when they made it to the semi-finals of the now defunct FIBA Champion’s Cup, a European-wide fourth-tier club competition.
Ventspils’ demise means that the only surviving Baltic team in Europe is Lithuanian club Lietuvos Rytas, who, also playing on Tuesday night, gained a handy 11-point lead ahead of their return leg Eurocup quarter-final clash against Ukrainian club BC Donetsk on Thursday evening.
Already leading by nine points at the end of the first quarter, Lietuvos Rytas will be perhaps a little disappointed that they did not push their advantage home more over the remaining 30 minutes. Future NBA player Jonas Valanciunas was a notable presence under the basket, finishing the game with 14 points and 10 rebounds, whilst for the visitors Ivan Radenovic picked up 16 points to go with 10 boards.
This is Lietuvos Rytas’ first season back participating in Europe’s second-tier club competition after spending two years playing in the Euroleague. The last time that Lietuvos Rytas was involved in the Eurocup, back in 2008/09, the red and blacks went on to claim the title.