It has been a tough week for Ukrainian league leaders Azovmash Mariupol. At the weekend they lost their first game of their domestic league to Budivelnyk and tonight they lost the opening match of their series with Greek side TIM Maroussi.
A strong start from Maroussi seemed to jangle the Azovmash players’ nerves and they remained on edge for the entire game. Good play from Maroussi put the home team under pressure and they were forced into mistake after mistake. Azovmash did draw level, but consecutive threes from Aleksandar Smiljanic gave Maroussi an 18:25 first quarter lead.
The nerves of the Azovmash players were still not settled after the first period and the game remained frenetic. While Maroussi gradually increased their lead, the Ukrainians tried to shoot their way back into contention, but could only hit 2/7 3-pointers. Maroussi, on the other hand, stayed disciplined and 10 points from Andre Hutson and 12 from Roderick Blakney saw them retain control.
After a similar 3rd quarter, Maroussi led 51:63 leaving Azovmash looking at desperation measures. It was at that point that Azovmash center Volodymyr Gurtovyy attempted to take over the game. Despite only averaging 4.3 ppg until this point in the season, Gurtovvy scored 10 points in 4 minutes and Maroussi’ lead was reduced to 5.
Unfortunately for the home team, their new-found leader suffered an injury on the next possession and the momentum was lost. Maroussi coach Yiannakis put Blakney back into the game and Azovmash’s last hopes died.
Blakney and Hutson led Maroussi with 17 points each, while Blakney was selected MVP.
Viacheslav Ievstratenko and Gurtovyy both netted 16 points for Azovmash.
A. Podkovyrov, Head Coach, Azovmash:
"Definitely, it wasn’t our day! My team played as good as the opponent let us. I’m sorry to say that, but we didn’t find into the game. Actually, Maroussi played much better tonight."
V. Ievstratenko, Azovmash:
"We will not lose our hope! We will do whatever it takes to prove our might in the eyes of our fans and to force Maroussi to come back to Ukraine on the 25th of February."
Panagiotis Yannakis, Head Coach, Maroussi:
"We didn’t expect that this game would be easy. So, we tried to focus on the game for 40 minutes. Tonight we just made the first step, but the battle isn’t over yet. Azovmash is even strong enough to beat every team on the road."
Roderick Blakney, Maroussi:
"We played against a strong opponent. So, I tried to show my skills. Tonight I did well, but on Friday it will be someone else."
Azovmash take the homecourt advantage into their series with Maroussi having finished 2nd in Group A, while Maroussi were 3rd. Nonetheless the Greek side finished with a superior record (9:5) and will be favoured to win the match-up.
Maroussi have been flying high all season in the Greek league where they retain the top position, while Azovmash have been equally strong at home, having lost only 1 game thus far.
Maroussi are certainly the more experienced side and they won the 2001 Saporta Cup, albeit with an entirely different roster to now. They have also made the semi-finals and quarter-finals of the Korac Cup in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Last year was less successful and Maroussi did not manage to advance past the Conference stage of the Champions Cup.
For Azovmash, this is their first season at this level in Europe. Last season they participated in the FIBA Europe Regional Challenge, and advanced all the way to the Final Four of Conference North, beating German side Bayer Leverkusen in the final in Mariupol.
They retain 6 players from last year’s squad, including Ukrainian national team player Andrey Botichev.
Both teams derive most of the scoring and leadership from the small forward position. For Maroussi, Andre Hutson has been the team’s top scorer and go-to guy, while Azovmash look to Tephen Hamilton. Hamilton averages more points than Hutson (16.3 – 14.1) while Hutson edges Hamilton in rebounding (7.1 – 6.6).
Azovmash have proved to be stronger at home than on the road this year where they have gone 4:2 as opposed to 3:3 on the road. Maroussi have identical home and road records (5:2) and the first game could well decide the series.