By Rob Scott / @robscott33 – Friday 7 February, Malaga, Spain

In the first modern classic of this year’s Copa del Rey, Valencia stole a heartbreaker from Laboral Kutxa Vitoria, as Rafa Martinez’s free throw with 0.4 seconds remaining sent La Taronja into the semi finals, 74-73. Baskonia led from the second to the 38th minute, but it wasn’t enough against a Valencia team relentless in pursuit of a deficit that was never out of reach.

The game ebbed and flowed between aesthetics and attrition, with Andres Nocioni and Tibor Pleiss at the centre of everything Baskonia did in the first half. Pleiss began asserting his dominance from the tip, dropping in eight points and two blocks in his first eight minutes. A 7-0 run with Pleiss involved at both ends took Baskonia up 16-9 before a Doellman three broke the run. When Pleiss wasn’t scoring or stuffing shots, he set hard screens, drawing help as the roller to set up Jelinek for three from the corner. Baskonia led 26-17 at the end of the period and Valencia were hanging on.

Valencia’s depth began to show in the second, as a 6-2 run against the Baskonia bench drew them back into the game. Adam Hanga was the counterpoint to that, with gritty, determined defense from the wing and intelligent cutting and passing to keep the ball moving and the scoreboard ticking. Pleiss had hit the bench for a rest, and Lamont Hamilton struggled to contain Doellman in the post. With the lead cut to 30-26, the big German re-entered and went to work. Another great screen enabled another Nocioni three, a dunk off a great Hanga feed, a block on Doellman, fantastic defense deep in the post to force a miss by Serhiy Lishchuk and a pair of free throws later and the Basques on top 38-26. Causeur pushed the lead to 12 with a transition layup and Valencia were reeling again. Only Pleiss’ second foul sent him back to the bench, an unfortunate portent for Scariolo’s men.

Facing a 45-35 halftime lead, Valencia were maybe slightly lucky to be trailing only by 10. Bojan Dubljevic did not have a great game, by his own very high recent standards, but he quietly accumulated 10 points at the half, mostly in the pick and roll against Hamilton.

Lishchuk began to slowly pick up the pressure in the paint for Valencia, with a quick fire scoring duel against Pleiss to open the third quarter. Oliver Lafayette showed, just as he did last week against Barcelona, that you can’t allow him a space to pull up for three, and his triple from the right wing capped a 9-4 Valencia run and the gap shrunk to 49-45. Pleiss began to struggle against the power and upper body strength of Lishchuk, who together with Lafayette began to shut down the Baskonia pick and roll. The first major problem for Scariolo in this game was the absence of Thomas Huertel through injury. Guiseppe Poeta, backing up Walter Hodge, contributed three assists but no points in 14 minutes, and that downtime in the offense, as Nocioni’s shots began to rim out, allowed Valencia to regain focus, and more importantly, minimised the impact of Dubljevic’s slow and disinterested pick and roll defense.

Hanging on at 51-48, Baskonia again dug deep and found a spurt of scoring when they needed it most. Jelinek benefitted from an NBA-style continuation call for a three-point play; Chapu dropped in a patented twisting leaner and then got the drop on a three that wobbled in off the back of the rim. Suddenly it was 59-50 and corner of the arena draped in red and blue again reverberated with the chant of BAS-KO-NIA! Leading 62-55 going into the final quarter, it felt like although Baskonia may have been pulling points out of unlikely places, the momentum was with them.

By the time the fourth period arrived, it was clear the game would be won by the team that could make high-pressure shots and box out hard at the other end. Adam Hanga did his best – he blocked Dubljevic at the rim after a Sam Van Rossum three brought Valencia within four, after Hamilton’s hard foul, called unsportsmanlike, sent Lishchuk to the bench for good. Hanga stroked a three of his own after Rafa Martinez hit a tough, hanging jumper to tie the game at 62-62, but it was the second part of the bargain that Baskonia couldn’t manage. Valencia grabbed eight offensive rebounds in the final quarter, and it was that inability to clean their own glass that ultimately condemned the Basque club.

That may have been different if Pleiss had not fouled out. To compensate, Hanga came up with two monumental blocks, and Baskonia managed a pair of heroic defensive stands in their own paint, as beauty gave way to brute force as the game’s determining factor. Hodge slinked his way to the rim for a 69-65 lead with a shade under three minutes remaining and the crowd erupted.

Dubljevic’s first truly relevant contribution came with a brick-wall screen to free Martinez for a corner three, and Baskonia’s inability to secure defensive rebounds began to stab them in the back. Still there was more to come. Hamilton somehow scooped in a driving layup around Dubljevic and Baskonia led 73-71 with 40 seconds on the clock. Hodge played impeccable defense on Lafayette but couldn’t stop the runner and we had a tied game.

The two plays to end the game revealed basketball’s tendency to be a stark and cruel game. Nocioni, without whom Baskonia may have crumbled in the first half, misjudged his angles in the midst of smothering defense and bricked a runner against the side of the backboard. Doellman collected, pushed forward and the ball found its way to Martinez on the right wing just over half court. A retreating San Emeterio stumbled into him, with 0.04 ticks of the clock to go.

The man whose free throws with no time left won Baskonia the ACB title in 2010 had to watch, distraught, as Martinez sank the first and missed the second to send Valencia into the semi-final.

Two legends in Vitoria-Gastiez, two emblems of ‘Baskonismo’. They did not deserve their fate, but Valencia created their own fortune, with relentless pursuit of loose balls and stifling defense. Their rematch with a Barcelona team they beat less than a week ago, will be a similarly rugged and potentially epic clash.

Why Valencia Won

Their offensive rebounds, particularly in the fourth quarter, were a combination of tenacity, positioning and plain luck, with a couple of fortunate bounces, but Doellman and Dubljevic stuck their feet in the paint and their rear-ends out, and came up with the goods just enough times to win the game. Doellman struggled from the field, shooting 4-of-14, but his 11 rebounds, 6 offensive, were critical.

Why Baskonia Lost

With just a little more shot-creation in the backcourt, they may have been able to manufacture enough points in the fourth to crawl home. Poeta is a competent enough ball-handler, but Heurtel would have been able to unlock things a little more, perhaps. If only Devon van Oostrum had progressed enough to be trusted in games of this calibre. Upfront, Hamilton is a creative offensive forward but struggled a lot in pick and roll defense, not knowing when to hedge and when to recover. The contrast with Lishchuk was plain to see.

A star on each team

Valencia: Rafa Martinez made big shot after big shot, all with a fairly high degree of difficulty, to finish with 13 points, 3-of-4 from behind the arc. It was fitting that he was the man who kept his nerve and won it from the line.

Baskonia: Anyone who still calls Tibor Pleiss soft is either lazy, or hasn’t been watching this season, or both.