TURNING POINT: Besiktas were still trailing by four points and seemed to have no answer to Szolnoki's hard-nosed defence when, just over four minutes before half-time, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Ersin Dagli took it upon themselves with consecutive personal plays to establish the Turkish side's dominance in the paint and brought their team up by three, 29-26. Besiktas never trailed again until the end.
GAME HEROES: Besiktas's frontline. Despite fighting every battle against a much bigger Szolnoki frontcourt, Mensah-Bonsu, Dagli and Zoran Erceg gave their team much-needed second chances with their offensive rebounds.
STATS DON'T LIE: With the Turks shooting only 31 percent from the floor (an astonishing 13% from behind the three-point arc), Besiktas's 22 offensive rebounds made all the difference.
|Pops Mensah-Bonsu fighting for a loose ball with Marton Bander - The Besiktas power forward collected 13 rebounds and the Szolnoki center 14|
Besiktas Milangaz booked their place in Sunday's EuroChallenge final in Debrecen with a 64-60 victory over Olaj Szolnoki.
The Turks, the presumed favourites, had to scrap and scrape until the bitter end.
The Final Four hosts were anything but welcome. Unproven and untested at this level, they again surpassed expectations.
In the end however, their amazing journey came up just short.
Zorac Erceg hit a game-high 17 points amid Besiktas shooting struggles but it was a team effort that ground out the chance to make amends in the competition's climax.
And they will take nothing for granted after this.
Skip Mills' three-point play gave the hosts an early 13-8 lead and defensively the underdogs were holding firm, matching Besiktas on the boards and erecting barricades in their path.
Eventually the Istanbul outfit began to assert themselves with David Hawkins levelling at 13-13 but Szolnoki declined to roll over.
Peter Por's men grabbed a 17-13 cushion at the end of the opening period and their momentum was maintained into the second.
It needed the veteran savvy of Ersin Dagli to raise Besiktas from such uncertainty.
The veteran forward produced a hook shot to grant his team only their second lead of the game with 3:25 remaining in the quarter but it was defence which did most to undermine Szolnoki's efforts.
Pops Mensah-Bonsu, a destructive force at both ends in piling in 13 points and 13 rebounds, pushed Besiktas 33-30 in front at half-time.
They would never trail again.
Up 41-40 in the middle of the third period, Besiktas held their opponents scoreless for over five minutes, embarking on a 9-0 run that threatened to kill off the hosts challenge.
Szolnoki retained ample fight within. Little by little, they clawed back from the brink, Akos Horvath and Brandon Gay hitting three-pointers to re-ignite their hopes, and then Skip Mills driving inside to polish off a 7-0 burst that brought his team level at 56-56 with 2:52 left.
The huge home support, arriving to Debrecen by bus, car and a specially chartered train, held their collective breath.
Yet when Obie Trotter fouled out with 59 seconds remaining, it seemed to puncture their hopes.
Carlos Arroyo hit four free-throws and although Szolnoki - paced by 13 from Hristo Nikolov - had three late shot attempts, none dropped and their dream of winning this title slipped away.
Besiktas still retain their grand ambitions. Battle-tested, they'll be ready for another war.
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Besiktas Head Coach Ergin Ataman
Congratulations to Szolnoki and their fans, who created a great atmosphere. Szolnoki analysed us very well and played aggressive defense. We only shot 31% on our fieldgoals and were stopped at nine assists. Usually, it is impossible to win a game with such offensive statistics. According to the rosters, everybody would think we are the clear favourites, but we missed the few opportunities to make it a clear game for us. In the end we won on hustle and offensive rebounds. Crongatulations to my team for reaching the first international final for Besiktas. I hope that on Sunday all our fans living around Debrecen come to support us in the final.
Szolnoki Olaj Head Coach Peter Por
Congratulations to Besiktas. They proved how big they are and what tradition they have. In my opinion there are three main reasons for our loss. First of all, Besiktas was very aggressive on defense, second they got lots of second chance points on offensive boards and we shot below our usual three-point percentage. But we can be very proud of us. When we wake up in the morning we can say that we did everything but that it just wasn't enough.
Besiktas player Ersin Dagli
It was a very tough game for us. Szolnoki had their crowd behind them and managed to make the big shots. But we hustled back and always stuck to our gameplan.
Szolnoki Olaj player Marton Bader
We prepared well, watching lots of video. Besiktas are a very experienced team. In the game we were feeling a small chance to win in front of our great crowd, but couldn't control the game. Reaching the Final Four was already a big success and now we want to take bronze on Sunday.
|Click to watch the Semi-Final clash between Final Four hosts Szolnoki Olaj and Turkish giants Besiktas Milangaz live and for free on FIBA Europe TV.|
Besiktas Milangaz have fulfilled the pre-season predictions of many a basketball expert by reaching the EuroChallenge Final Four.
Now surprising Szolnoki Olaj, the hosts of this weekend's spectacle, are going to pull out all stops in a bid to stop the star-studded team from capturing the title when the sides meet in the Semi-Finals on Friday.
The event is being staged in Debrecen, Hungary.
While Szolnoki will not be in their own arena, one that has been a fortress in Europe the past two season, they are almost certain to have the benefit of home-court advantage.
And they'll need it against Besiktas, who boast arguably the most talented line-up of the teams at the Final Four.
Arroyo has carried a few knocks this season and hasn't always been in top form since joining the club in late December.
But the Puerto Rico international has been healthier of late and he demonstrated that at the weekend when leading the team with 17 points in an 81-77 triumph over Trabzonspor.
Kemp missed three months of EuroChallenge action while recovering from injury but returned and played in a vital game on 13 March at Artland Dragons that Besiktas won, 74-73.
They won the next encounter at home to progress to the Final Four.
"We currently have an opportunity in our hands," Ataman said.
"A European Cup gives hope to Besiktas and Turkish basketball.
"Besiktas is a great community ... a EuroChallenge win would be an important achievement in my career."
Unlike Besiktas, who swept Artland 2-0 in their Quarter-Final series to reach the Final Four, Szolnoki had to claw back a 1-0 deficit against BK Ventspils.
Similar to Besiktas, Szolnoki are already assured of ending the season with at least one trophy as they downed Atomeromu SE in the Hungarian Cup final earlier this month.
Season So Far
Szolnoki Olaj have enjoyed a dream season in Europe. The club had to survive a tense Qualifying Round tie with Tampereen Pyrintö. After falling in the first leg, 77-69, in Finland, the Hungarian outfit bounced back with a 69-57 win in the return leg for a four-point success on aggregate. At home this season, Szolnoki were nearly unbeatable. They won eight of their nine games, including the second-leg triumph over Tampereen in the qualifiers. Last season, Szolnoki prevailed in all four of their games at home. Despite the Final Four being in Hungary, Szolnoki are not being touted as favorites. That, coupled with the facts that Por's team has already won the domestic cup and is also in the Hungarian play-off semi-finals eases some of the pressure on the players as they look to beat Besiktas.
Besiktas have caused a stir like never before in the EuroChallenge and much of that is owed to the fact that Deron Williams turned out for the club during the NBA Lockout. Williams had a 50-point explosion in a game against BG Göttingen on 22 November, his last in the competition. Williams then had his jersey raised to the rafters in the Besiktas arena before his return to the New Jersey Nets. His departure did not signal a decline for Besiktas, who actually began the season looking to qualify for the Eurocup but were eliminated by Dexia Mons-Hainaut. Instead, Besiktas moved from strength to strength and lost just twice. Both defeats came against Mad-Croc Fuenlabrada. In their decisive series against Artland, a team that had been red hot, Mensah-Bonsu was immense. The Great Britain big man had 22 points and 10 rebounds in the one-point triumph in Game 1, and then 25 points, 17 boards, two blocks and two steals in Game 2.
The Hot Hand
Carlos Arroyo seems to have shifted into a higher gear the past couple of weeks and not just with his
|Pops Mensah-Bonsu is a dominant force for Besiktas Milangaz under the basket|
playmaking ability. The Puerto Rican has made 11 of his last 25 attempts from long range in Turkey's Beko Basketbol Ligi and has buried 47.3% (25 of 57) on the season. He is shooting 89% (57 of 64) from the charity stripe.
Szolnoki's Akos Horvath is a player that can stretch the Besiktas defense. He has been prolific from long range, nailing 53.5% (38 of 71) of his attempts in the EuroChallenge. Horvath is not a player that shies away from the big occasion, either. The 31-year-old made all four of his three-ball attempts in the decisive Game 3 win against Ventspils that got Szolnoki into the Final Four.
The pressure is going to be on Szolnoki point guard Obie Trotter, who has been a handful for opponents. He has led his team with averages of 17 points and 4.4 assists, but it remains to be seen if he can withstand the attention that he is sure to receive from the Besiktas defense. If Trotter is allowed to run wild, creating opportunities for himself and his teammates, Szolnoki will be right in the game until the end.
Marcelus Kemp is a force for Besiktas when healthy, and particularly on offense. If he can provide some points from the perimeter, big men Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Ersin Dagli and Zoran Erceg will have more room to operate in the low post.
Pops Mensah-Bonsu v Marton Bader. Mensah-Bonsu is the leading rebounder in the EuroChallenge at 10.8 per game and ranks fourth in scoring at 18.3. Bader crashes the boards well himself, averaging eight while in the scoring department, he's been scoring at a clip of 9.1 per contest.