A pair of tremendous outings from Mateusz Ponitka and AJ Slaughter sent Poland to the quarter finals of EuroBasket for the first time since 1997 as they overcame a brave outing from Issuf Sanon and Ukraine.
Ukraine had a problem and it hailed from Louisville, Kentucky. AJ Slaughter, Poland’s naturalised player, was off to an absolute tear in the early going with 11 points including 3/4 from deep in the first quarter as we got the “Slaughter on” version that had been huge for Poland in two of their three wins in the group phase.
Slaughter has been pure Jekyll and Hyde for Poland. His job is to score and score a lot. When he does, Poland tends to win. When he doesn’t, Poland tends to take a bath. Slaughter doesn’t have so-so days, as his stats show. He either is the man or he looks like a wasted passport. It must be awfully frustration for Polish fans to watch.
It couldn’t have been more stark here. When he sat late in the first, Ukraine rallied to cut the gap and then finally went ahead for the first time in the second until, of course, Slaughter returned. Two quick buckets and Poland were back on top.
Slaughter was inadvertently in a duel with a man he rarely saw on the floor. Trailing 14-10 with just over 4 minutes left in the opening quarter, Ainars Bagatskis unleashed his chaotic wonder as Issuf Sanon entered the game for the first time. Within a possession he had gotten to the line and throughout the day he proved to be the main source of hope for his side.
Sanon has been the mixer this Ukrainian cocktail needed throughout the tournament. He was the heart and soul of their win over Italy and managed to briefly school Giannis Antetokounmpo in the loss to Greece. When speaking to the media he has mixed humour with emotion, going from being like a sitcom pairing with Bagatskis to speaking from the heart to give love to the people of Ukraine.
A nice steal and quick long pass fed Ivan Tkachenko for a breakaway dunk. More speed, another big play, as he fed Ivan Dobrov for a three. 2 steals, 2 dimes, 2 assists was a fine opening stint from Sanon.BallinEurope is ramping up its YouTube game this season. Subscribe to our channel now for player exclusives, analysis videos, and much more.
It made for an unusual duel as Sanon and Slaughter were rarely contending directly one on one nor were they even on the floor that much at the same time in the first half yet it was through them that the game was dictated. Sanon made a another couple of buckets and dropped a dime as Ukraine’s offence fund its speed before eventually sitting again.BallinEurope has a book, a real life actual book called I Like it Loud, and you can buy it on Amazon now. It’s here as a book and here in Kindle form.
The second half started with both teams going back to their starting line-ups, which meant Sanon sat and watched as his team handled the threat of Slaughter better than it had in the opening 20 minutes. Bagatskis clearly wants to be measured in how he uses the 22 year old, using his energy and chaos at key moments when Ukraine needs that spark the most.
Alex Len and Svi Mykhailiuk seemed to handle the situation fine as they had their way offensively with Poland through the opening minutes of the third quarter. Sanon came back in after 4 minutes and the pace immediately went up a notch. A quick feed to Artem Pustovyi and Ukraine were back up by 7.
The Poles however were not playing ball as the energy clearly dropped from Ukraine and three possessions later it was all square again. Out of the timeout and Sanon went “To hell with it, I’m driving” and drew a foul off a helpless Alexander Dziewa. Another foul drawn, this time from Slaughter, and he tied things back up after Poland had pushed in front. A broken play soon after and he got Pustovyi on the inside.
The duel was in full flow now. Slaughter put Poland ahead and moved to 20 points on the day with a turnaround J. Sanon immediately found Pustovyi again to tie things up before the big man put them back in front with the bonus. It wasn’t enough to have the edge entering the final 10 minutes as Poland led by 2. Screw that, Sanon from deep and Ukraine’s saviour was coming out firing in the fourth. Then he found Tkachenko for another three to get his eighth assist of the night.
The problem with chaos is that it needs to be tempered. Sanon gave up a foul defensively and then a turnover on back to back possessions as he made a second error while trying to make up for the first. Worse, he looked hurt after the turnover. Bagastkis sat him, saving him and letting him get his head back and hopefully his body too for the denouement. The drop in energy was obvious as Poland pushed into a 6 point lead even with Slaughter sitting. Midway through the fourth and it felt like a decisive moment in the content. Mateusz Ponitka was the one stepping up now for Poland and a deep score from him delighted their small but loud support.
After four minutes, Bagatskis had to break the seal and bring Sanon back in. He drove for a lay-up to cut the gap to 7, then it dropped to 3, and even 2, but Ukraine just couldn’t get back level. Poland held on, the job was done and history was made.
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