|Nick Calathes stepped up in crunch time, finishing with a game-high 19 points|
"The final four minutes seemed as long as a week," Lokomotiv Kuban head coach Evgeny Pashutin said after the second leg of his team's Eurocup semi-final tie with Valencia Basket on Tuesday night.
Lokomotiv fell 68-63 to the Spanish team at home, but advanced to the final of the competition by virtue of their 97-87 victory on the road on the first leg.
The reason though the finale of the Tuesday clash felt like an eternity to Pashutin, and probably to every single spectator in the 7,500-strong crowd in the Krasnodar arena, was because midway through the fourth quarter, it looked like Valencia could pull off the huge upset.
The Spanish side went 53-43 up on a dunk by young Montenegrin international Bojan Dubljevic, who was outstanding for his team on the night and the tie was suddenly starting over from scratch, with less than five minutes to play in regulation.
It was then when Pashutin, not for the first time this season, must have felt vindicated for a bold decision he made in the summer.
Namely, to sign not one but two excellent point guards, and keep them on the court simultaneously.
They will both most probably be starters on their respective national teams, both of them medal contenders, at EuroBasket 2013.
Calathes took the responsibility and made a crucial jumper with 1:21 left on the clock that brought Valencia's advantage down to just four points and dealt a huge blow on the visitors' morale.
Lokomotiv kept their calm from the charity stripe to make the vital free throws at the end and the guests simply run out of time to bring the gap again to double digits.
Dubljevic led the way for Valencia with a 14-point, 11-rebound double-double while Serbian point guard Stefan Markovic had 14 points and six assists.
Calathes had a game-high 19 points and Kalnietis finished with 10, but perhaps the most telling of their stat lines was the team-high seven rebounds each one of them collected.
The Greek point guard joined powerhouse Panathinaikos at the age of 20 and won the Euroleague title in 2011.
He has been averaging 13.1 points, a team-high 6.6 assists and 5.9 rebounds in Lokomotiv's Eurocup campaign.
The Lithuanian signed with the legendary Zalgiris Kaunas in 2006, when he was also just 20 years old.
|Mantas Kalnietis is Lokomotiv's leading scorer in the Eurocup|
Kalnietis leads the team in scoring with 13.7 points and dishes out 5.1 assists per game in the Eurocup.
They are two players who have known nothing else in their professional career than playing every season in the top continental competition and joining two of the best national teams in Europe in the summer.
They are accustomed to playing at the top level - and winning.
In that respect, they are very similar to their coach; Pashutin was a different style of point guard in his playing days, more focused on his playmaking duties and did not always play on title-winning sides.
As a coach though, he was on Ettore Messina's staff at CSKA Moscow for two of their Euroleague titles and then when he took over the reins he led the Russian giants to a PBL championship and VTB League double in 2010.
The following year, at the helm of UNICS Kazan, he conquered the Eurocup title, a feat that he has been trusted with repeating this year in charge of Lokomotiv.
The Krasnodar outfit will know their opponent in the final on Wednesday night, when Uxue Bilbao Basket play host to Budivelnik Kiev in the second leg of the other semi-final tie.
Bilbao had prevailed 93-83 in the first leg in Ukraine and, just like Lokomotiv, are favourites to advance.
The Eurocup final takes place on 13 April in Belgium and the eventual champions, much to the delight of Pashutin, Calathes and Kalnietis, will be rewarded with a place in next season's Turkish Airlines Euroleague.