Last Gasp Triumph Tastes Sweeter

27 February 2013
9. Antti Kanervo (Joensuun Kataja)
The achievements of Joensuun Kataja to reach the EuroChallenge Quarter-Final Play-Offs represents one of the biggest achievements by a Finnish club in the history of basketball in the Scandinavian country

The only emotion in sport that compares to, or even tops, the feeling of utter dominance over a rival, is that of having played to the best of your ability and survived to fight another day.

Once it sinks in, it enables the winner to better appreciate the importance of the achievement and reflect on its long-term significance.

The fans and players of the three EuroChallenge teams that celebrated on Tuesday night like it was New Year's Eve, know this very well right now.

Advancing to the quarter-final play-offs of the competition means much more to Joensuun Kataja, Paris Levallois and Khimik Yuzhne, that punched their ticket on the final day of the Last 16, than to Pinar Karsiyaka, BCM Gravelines Dunkerque, Krasnye Krylia, EWE Baskets Oldenburg and Telekom Baskets Bonn, that had done their homework early.



In Kataja's case, beating Pinar Karsiyaka 87-79 to reach the last eight of a European competition represents first of all a success of enormous historical proportions.

Finnish newspaper Urheilu hailed the achievement by comparing it to the historic feat of football side HJK Helsinki in the 1998/99 season, when they became the first ever team from the country to compete in the UEFA Champions League group stage.

Kataja started their EuroChallenge journey in September, knocking out Aliaga Petkim in the qualifiers to earn the right to play in the Regular Season and in a way completed a cycle on Tuesday by defeating another Turkish side, and much more powerful this time, to reach beyond their wildest dreams at the start of the season.

On Wednesday morning, the ever-expanding basketball-loving community in Finland credited head coach Jukka Toijala with the biggest part of the success, for his perseverance and absolute belief in his players since the day this magnificent adventure commenced.

"It's hard to say anything that can describe our feelings," Toijala said after the game.

"This whole journey in the EuroChallenge has been great and still keeps going on."

No matter what happens from now on, the over-achievers of Kataja know that they have done a huge service to basketball in their country.

It took an enormous effort and a phenomenal success by the national team at EuroBasket 2011 to force Finnish media to turn their sights on the sport, and a club success like this came at just the right moment to help build some momentum ahead of the upcoming EuroBasket in Slovenia.


Zvezdan Mitrovic is presented as new head coach of Khimik Yuzhne
Zvezdan Mitrovic said following Khimik's win that, 'the victory is important not only for us but for Ukrainian basketball in general.'


Up to a certain extent, Ukraine are in a similar situation to Finland, in that they luck the success at club level to accompany a successful generation of players who lead the nation to back-to-back EuroBasket appearances.

Khimik head coach Zvezdan Mitrovic is Montenegrin, but has lived in the country long and is more than astute enough to know this.

He acknowledged the importance of Tuesday's superb 81-51 win over Norrköping Dolphins in Group K by first thanking his team's loyal fans, then congratulating his players and then saying that 'the victory is important not only for us but for Ukrainian basketball in general.'

Yet he must have left journalists puzzled, because he sat at the press conference with a stern expression, and in any case definitely not as jubilant as his colleague Toijala seemed to be in Finland at around the same time.

It partly has to do with the anticlimactic nature of Khimik's success on Tuesday. This was an important encounter also for the Dolphins, who could have knocked out the Ukrainian side and taken their place in the play-offs, had they won by 10 points.

But the Swedish team somehow failed to turn up for the game, they showed no signs of having the strength to rise up to the occasion at any point in the clash, while Khimik stayed focused and with their eyes firmly fixed on the prize from tip-off to finish.

Mitrovic was happy, of course, but he also demands more from his players and perhaps could not help feeling that it should not have gone down to the wire, they should have clinched qualification earlier.

Khimik are by no means the favourites in their play-off series with Group L winners Oldenburg, but you can expect them to do everything in their power to stun the German team, because they are no more self-confident than ever.

Mitrovic sent a clear message to that effect, when just moments after Tuesday's success he turned his focus to what comes next.

"Now we are entering a very tough period in the month of March," he said.

"For us, 'March Madness', as the Americans would say, lies ahead with at least 12 or 13 challenging games.

"We will play hard and we will try to cope with all the challenges ahead."



4. Sean May (Paris Levallois)
Sean May's return from injury can not be underestimated for Paris Levallois

In the great scheme of French basketball, the fact that Paris Levallois clinched qualification to the EuroChallenge play-offs from Group J does not carry the same importance as Kataja's success within a Finnish context, especially considering that fellow French BCM topped the group.

Yet for Paris head coach Christophe Denis and his players, Tuesday night is a moment they will reflect upon for the rest of the season.

By coming back to defeat Szolnoki Olaj 80-74 in one of the most challenging and rowdiest arenas in the EuroChallenge, they proved to themselves that they have the talent and the mental toughness it takes to win big games, at one of the most critical points in their season.

Paris were defeated in the semi-finals of the French Leaders Cup just 10 days previously, fell 87-86 at home in an agonising overtime drama against BCM in the EuroChallenge midweek, and then lost again at home at the weekend, 78-70 to Dijon, sliding down to sixth place in the Pro A standings for the first time in months.

As if this losing streak was not enough, the team's top two scorers, Sean May and Jawad Williams, picked up injuries in the cup semi-final and while the first came back at the weekend, the latter could not feature in the decisive clash in Hungary.

As it turned out, it didn't matter. Just as it had happened in the game against BCM, despite the loss, coach  Denis saw his players step up to be counted, following the plan to perfection and playing as a unit.

The Parisians needed this difficult win not only to stay alive in the EuroChallenge, but mainly to, finally, feel good about themselves and see their never-say-die attitude rewarded.

If they can follow this up with a victory in the difficult road game at Le Mans in domestic league action at the weekend, they could transform into a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of the season.



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