By Jeff Taylor
BK Ventspils haven't had a normal season by any stretch of the imagination.
This is a team, remember, that blew a 23-point lead in the second half of a home game against ZZ Leiden on January 27 and lost to drop to 0-2 in the EuroChallenge Last 16.
They looked like cannon fodder.
Yet Ventspils rebounded with four straight wins, two of them in overtime against Choral Roanne.
The last triumph, a game the Latvian side had to win to stay alive in the competition, came on Tuesday after a remarkable comeback.
|Ventspils Head Coach Gundars Vetra has steered his young team in the right direction|
Trailing 75-67 with 23 seconds left, Ventspils battled back to tie the contest at the end of regulation.
Ronalds Zakis rebounded a missed free-throw and scored at the buzzer.
They ended up prevailing, 94-92, to clinch a spot in the Quarter-Finals.
The high-scoring Ventspils forward Jahmar Young poured in 25 points in that game.
A native of Baltimore who played American college basketball at New Mexico State, Young has been right in the thick of the fight all year long for the Latvian club.
He says it's been an extraordinary turnaround.
"It's overwhelming," Young said to Basketball World News. "I still can't believe that we won (against Roanne).
"I watch some of the tape sometimes and watch how it all unfolded. Every day since, like every 30 minutes, it hits me, 'We won! We won!'
"Then I forget about it, and then when I remember again, it's still a shock."
What Ventspils have are young players that have bought into the philosophy of a coach, Gundars Vetra, who once played the game at the highest level himself.
He competed in Italy, Russia and the NBA.
Vetra, who was born in Ventspils, represented the Commonwealth of Independent States at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and averaged 8.9 points per game.
"Man, it all starts with our coach," Young said.
"He doesn't let us get complacent. He came in for that reason, to coach a team to compete, so it's all paying off right now."
Vetra was angry after the defeat to Leiden.
Why wouldn't be?
Yet instead of allowing it to tear his team apart, he used it as a teaching tool.
"Our coach, he's a player and he's a player's coach, and he knows this sort of situation can happen," Young said.
"He let us know that we can't have mental lapses, and that we couldn't have a lack of execution.
"We can lose the games, but we can't lose in that fashion. It's about fighting the whole 40 minutes and not just 28 minutes."
The way the first leg of their Eurocup Qualifying Round tie against Azovmash finished, it seemed Ventspils might not even play in the EuroChallenge.
Young hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to give his team a 75-74 win.
"I have very, very high expectations of myself," Young said.
He's averaging 15.6 points per game in Europe.
"I love those moments," he said.
"I'm still a young player and can only get better and the coach believed in me."
The Ukrainians won the home leg, 79-65, however, and Ventspils went into the EuroChallenge.
After the Leiden setback, Ventspils began to grow up.
"The team's been doing a good job of keeping the intensity in practices, and we're just doing a great job," Young said.
"Ventspils, we're under the radar but we have some great players here and we're all young players striving to be the best that we can be and it's all good to show everyone in Europe that we have some good players that can play."
Next up is a best-of-three showdown with Szolnoki Olaj.
At stake is a spot in the Final Four, which will be played on the 27th and 29th of April.
On paper, Ventspils appear to be favorites against Szolnoki since they have home-court advantage.
"As players, we're confident," Young said. "Of course we think we can get to the Final Four.
"But the biggest thing is to take every game seriously, go with a belief that we can't lose and stick together.
"Anything can happen, as long as we stick together as one unit."