By Rob Scott / @robscott33 – Thursday 6 February, Malaga, Spain

How it went down

Viktor Sanikidze was born in April 1986, but his wise-man beard and old-man game betray that deceptively recent birthdate. The force behind a 23-15 third quarter that wrenched CAI Zaragoza back into this game, he was at the centre of virtually every big play in a thrilling 79-74 comeback win. Big Vik dropped in 12 points and and eight rebounds, but it seemed like more. Damien Rudez finished the job, hitting 4-of-4 from behind the arc including the dagger from the right corner that put CAI up 72-65 with 80 seconds remaining.

The first quarter was a scrappy affair, but Georgi Shermadini went to work on the pick and roll to help Zaragoza to a 13-9 start. Nik Caner-Medley was probably too involved for his team’s good, and a 15-11 score in favour of CAI was appropriate for a period when defenses were on top.

Sanikidze picked up his second foul in the first quarter, and his absence coincided with Unicaja’s best spell of the game. They won the second stanza 27-16, as Zoran Dragic and Mindaugas Kuzminskas went to work. Both players are such intelligent cutters and off-the-ball finishers, and they took the CAI defense apart. Their transition game was in full effect, and Zaragoza couldn’t keep up, literally. Even on a rebound right under their own rim, Kuzminskas tore down the floor and into the corner, draining a three before any defender could catch up.

By contrast, Michael Roll over-dribbled and slowed the Zaragoza offense to a halt, with Malaga’s long-armed defenders poking the ball away and disrupting the slow pick and rolls they were facing. Kuzminskas had 13 points at the half, to match Shermadini on the same total. Unicaja led 38-31 and looked good to continue the momentum they had created.

After halftime, Sanikidze re-entered the game and everything changed once more. But not before Kuzminskas finished another tough drive at the rim and got the roll on a three to push his own total to 18. That would be his last real contribution, and his absence in the fourth quarter as CAI stole the game was puzzling. Even though Malaga’s ball movement was superior and they crashed the offensive glass throughout, they never forced Zaragoza to crumble, never built an insurmountable lead.

Sanikidze began the comeback with a transition three to pull them within 45-42.  Rudez hit a tough runner and a daring pull-up three from the wing to lead 50-49. Malaga had let the lead slip, and they countered with confusing lineups. For far too long as the game wound to a close, Plaza had too many non-factors on offense on the floor at the same time. Ryan Toolson, Sergi Vidal and Carlos Suarez finished scoreless in a combined 46+ minutes. Dragic sat for too long. Kuzminskas never came back. A 25-13 ten minute period saw CAI back in the lead, 56-51.

CAI’s 2-3 zone more or less brought Unicaja’s ball movement to standstill – or was it just that the players Plaza put on the floor did that to themselves? Dragic dragged his team back into the game anyway, with a sneaky put-back and more foot-on-the-gas transition play. When Rudez barged him over on a fast break, ‘anti-deportiva’ was the call. It was questionable, but he missed the first free throw and they failed to score on the resulting possession. That made it 66-64, and if Unicaja had taken the lead on that play, the deafening home support, back from their third-quarter slumber, might have carried them home.

The fourth quarter was superb entertainment, right up the decisive three by Rudez. The Croatian stretch four’s penultimate triple, which put CAI up 66-58 with five minutes remaining was a pretty good microcosm of why Zaragoza won.  A fantastic defensive possession by Malaga, with a textbook hedge-and-trap and manic rotations, forced an off-balance three at the end of the shot clock by Tabu, but Sanikidze tapped the rebound back out to keep the ball alive. It found Rudez and a defensive stand turned into an eight-point game.

As it was, Tabu hit a step-back three to break the 6-0 Unicaja run, which made it 69-64, and Rudez buried the hosts soon after. Dragic never gave up, and hit a three to cut the gap to 76-72 with 22 seconds left, but CAI hit enough free throws to hold on.

Why CAI Zaragoza Won

Rudez hit big shots, and their two point guards – Roll and Llompart – recorded a combined 13 assists. That and Vikor Sanikidze. It sounds simplistic, but Malaga went on a 27-16 run during the only prolonged period of time he spent on the bench. He came back in at a time when Zaragoza looked sluggish and passive and swung the game back in their favour.

Why Unicaja Malaga lost

Joan Plaza is a superb coach, one of the best in Europe, and when he put the right lineups on the floor, Unicaja looked irresistible. Kuzminskas had perhaps his best game for the team to date, finally resembling the player Plaza brought with him from Zalgiris. All the more weird therefore, that he played no role in the game’s conclusion. That stretch either side of the final quarter break when both teams went small: Urtasun, Toolson and Granger, with Stimac and Suarez, against Zaragoza lineups with Roll, Tabu and Steffanson was a disaster. Dragic’s salvage efforts were just too late. In the absence of Earl Calloway, Jason Granger needed to have a big game, and he came up short, with 6 points in nearly 30 minutes. They also managed to lose a game in which they grabbed 21 offensive rebounds to CAI’s 24 defensive. That’s pretty difficult to do.

A star from each team

CAI Zaragoza: Sanikidze gets most of the love in this piece, but Damien Rudez hit the biggest shots. A nasty dunk also showed he’s not just a three-point-gunner.

Unicaja Malaga: Dragic did not deserve to be on the losing side. As disruptive and dangerous transition player as there is in Europe, one thing he will never do is hide from the action.

CAI now face Real Madrid on Saturday. The odds are against them, but Sanikidze going coast to coast, Shermadini’s strength inside and Rudez popping out for  the deep ball will at least give Madrid something to think about.