Fuenlabrada 86 - 82 Asefa Estudiantes

Think back to your high school basketball days. You step off the bus, pop in the headphones and let the sweatpants sag just enough to look cool. The other school’s popular kids stop laughing at their own jokes long enough to glare at you, so shoot them an icy eye in return. Then you walk into the gym.

This place might be smaller than that. Welcome to Polideportivo Fernando Martín in Fuenlabrada, where today the home team plays host to nearby Asefa Estudiantes. Based on the number of middle fingers and curses directed toward the Estudiantes cheering section, it’s a pretty fierce rivalry. Considering they’re about 25 minutes away from each other, it’s easy to understand why.

In the spirit of the NCAA tournament, allow me drop some names. For Estudiantes there’s Tennesse Volunteer and SEC three-point leader Chris Lofton and Maryland Terrapin Nik Caner-Medley, who hasn’t lost an ounce of intensity in his travels.

For Fuenlabrada there’s Notre Dame point guard Chris Thomas who, as Slam noted, is playing over here while fellow Fighting Irish Chris Quinn makes millions to sit on the Miami Heat bench. Sharing a backcourt with Thomas (whose jersey just reads “C.T.”) is Kentucky Wildcat Gerald Fitch who happens to be leading the ultra competitive Spanish League in scoring at 19.3 points per game. And for those more familiar with Atlanta Hawks basketball (my hand is raised), there’s Uruguayan big man Esteban Batista whose performance in the last Olympics landed him a stint in the NBA. Batista is also leading the ACB in rebounding.

The real kicker is former NBA lottery pick Nikoloz Tskitishvili. When I saw his name on the roster, my heart leapt; last time someone was this pumped to watch him play, Denver Nuggets executives ended up losing their jobs. He’s still 7-feet tall and he still hasn’t learned how to cut in traffic or launch for a rebound. Or step foot inside the arc. Like, ever. The Nugs are probably happy they didn’t trade down to get Amare Stoudemire or Caron Butler. Fifth pick in the draft? Really? If “Tskitishvili” were as easy to pronounce as “Darko”, he might be the poster child for Euro draft busts. At least Darko stuck around for a while.

As for the game itself, Nikoloz & Co. blew an 8-point halftime lead with a disgusting 11-point third quarter, letting Estudiantes drop 26 along the way. About midway through the third, Slam and I decided to pick sides. Slamuel staked claim to Estudiantes while I went with the hometown who had apparently left their talent in the locker room. Obviously inspired by my loyalty, the boys in orange turned on the boosters and tied it up a few minutes into the fourth. The drums and foghorns seemed very happy about it, as did their fanatical owners. They rode that momentum to an 85-82 lead with under a minute left. In the game’s dumbest play call, two Estudiantes threes to tie went wide, the second a Carlos Suarez clanker that never found rim. Too bad they don’t have a stroker on the floor. Someone like, oh I don’t know, Chris Lofton. Before I get to the game’s beastliest performance, let me add some final Estudiantes notes:

  • Despite his final shot, Carlos Suarez is cool. He is spunky. He is loud. He could play for me any day.
  • Pancho Jansen looks like Roger Grimau from a distance. One nasty dunk on the baseline and 23 points later and I accepted him as his own person.
  • Nik Caner-Medley needs to get the ball more. He’s tearing up the league and he grabbed 11 boards today, but those 6 points are the box score’s sore thumb. He was open multiple times, but the art of the entry pass seemed to escape the boys in blue.

Esteban Batista had one of the most dominant performances I’ve ever seen in person. It went like this: 24 points on 11/12 shooting (and by shooting I mean mostly dunking) to go along with 14 rebounds for a ranking of 33 in only 26 minutes. He ran the break, got good position inside, went after everything. Basically the anti-Tskitishvili. Dude is going to get paid this summer, and I’m not so sure Fuenlabrada can keep him.

In his first game back from injury, Fitch was a bit stiff and his shot had some rust on it (0/4 from three, 3/7 from the free throw line), but he took it to the rack and squeezed out 15 points. Leo Mainoldi helped out with 12 in 20 minutes and Chris Thomas’ quiet day still left him with a game-high 6 assists.

The whole game I sat wondering how in the world Fuenlabrada was a 10-15 team while Estudiantes was 13-12. They have the league’s best scorer in Fitch, the league’s best rebounder in Batista and a point guard who understands situational ball as well as anyone you’ll find over here in Thomas. They made 24 of 38 shots (68%) today from 2 and 17/24 from the line (71%) and still needed a free throw with 3.8 seconds to lock up the win at home. Yes, they were 7/25 (28%) from distance, but Estudiantes only 8/28 (29%), so that’s a wash. The problem must just be defense, although I never sensed a lack of effort. The win today put them at 11-15 and two games out of a playoff spot; Unicaja, Estudiantes and DKV Joventut are all tied up at 13-13 in spots six through eight. If Fuenlabrada makes it to the ACB Tournament, opponents should approach with extreme caution.

You’ve always got a chance when Nikoloz Tskitishvili is on your side.