The crowd came, they brought the noise, they set a record, and they had reason for hope, but the young Antwerp Giants simply couldn’t overcome a canny Tenerife side in the Basketball Champions League Final Four. Emmet Ryan watched the clock strike midnight on Cinderellaujgm
This was not an aesthetically pleasing game of basketball. Nor was it one where the purist could even draw much joy. It’s of no matter to Tenerife, they came here knowing they were the favourites on unfriendly ground. They knew the job was about doing what was required to get to Sunday. Their job was not to deliver a happy ending for the fans here but to get their shot at a second title in three years.
Of course they played Fanfare for Rocky before opening tip. The hometown Giants were the underdogs all season long and tonight would be no different. The bell rang at the opening tip and their leader Paris Lee got the ball. Antwerp turned it over, Nicolas Brussino broke away for an easy dunk. The very next song from the PA was Eye of the Tiger. The Sportpaleis was not doing subtle.
It took over 2 minutes but Yoeri Schoepen’s three was the first score for Antwerp and the place erupted. Their next offence failed, and Tim Abromaitis calmly ran down to score in the open court. That was the tone, wild noise or else absolute silence. The yellow clad Tenerife fans to the right of press row were even drowned out by the silence when their side scored.
Jae’Sean Tate hopped gleefully as he drew an and-1, the make pushed the lead to 7 for the host as the Belgian fans started to get a little relaxed a touch earlier than anyone ought to.
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Tournament days are brutal and the gap between games can feel like an eternity for anyone watching at home but it’s never enough here. This was, comparatively, an easy one compared to a Euroleague Final Four or a knockout day at EuroBasket. There’s not the same crush of media to get a spot, you know the players you want to get, from there it’s all rather straightforward. The only problem is that there is never enough time. You might fit in a minute, even two, to talk to people you want to know better but every second you’re taking that tiny break to be human, your mind is keeping an eye on those seconds you are losing to get everything done before the next game. The boss, well the one at the time of writing this (it’s a long story) reckons I love the crazy. The rush is something alright but the stress is paralysing.
Tate with the dunk and whatever complacency was here had turned to fire. This was entertaining basketball from Antwerp, albeit in the simplest of highlight reel ways, and being fun had got them this far so why not stick with it.
Lee merely making a turnover to start a breakaway got the place on its feet. He’d be fouled and go to the line but you could see efforts to get him a Belgian passport already going through the heads of any government officials nearby. There’s a buyout on him at the end of the year but he’s only a second year pro who has shown he has plenty to excite, somebody with a lot more money is going to give him a very serious look this summer.
As Tenerife took a break near the tail end of the first, the crowd roared for the Red Foxes. It’s a rather different vibe to the Sports Complex in Tralee. It’s bigger and more glamourous, certainly, but it’s that touch more sanitised too. The crowd are into it but in a house this big it’s difficult for them to be intimidating. You hear what they shout at you when you head down to face the Warriors.
Safe or not, they were doing the job as Antwerp led 20-12 after 10 minutes.
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It had been neat so far from Antwerp. They’d given up turnovers but those were forced by Tenerife. A wild pass by Tate early in the second drew a gasp. This was different, that was a real error. Right away, the Giants locked down on D to force a 24 second violation. Mentally, this was the type of move they needed to make, to not let the slip phase them.
A big chunk of that comes from the man on the sideline for them. Roel Moors is a legend here, as a player, he’s only 40 and in the early stages of his coaching career but it’s the right point in life to be when your players average out at 23 years of age. A recent player who isn’t going to sound like grandpa but still has the experience and authority necessary is the right fit.
We really weren’t supposed to be in Antwerp. The Giants entered this competition at the first qualifying round, won through that and the next, got a bye in the third because sometimes dumb stuff happens in Europe, and were grand but nothing to worry about in the regular season. They finished fourth in the same group as Bamberg, meaning they got Murcia who had won their group in the last 16. That should have been all she wrote only the Belgians won that, then they utterly wrecked Nizhny Novgorod in the quarter finals and that gave them one of four bids for this.
Even then, if everything went as expected they still wouldn’t have hosted. They had their opponents in this game to thank for that. The expectation was the Hapoel Jerusalem would make and host the Final Four. Tenerife took care of them however. With the Spanish side having already hosted it two years ago, Bamberg’s arena being too small, Bologna’s larger arena unavailable, suddenly this big place was the perfect spot.
Still, the offence got quiet. By the middle of the second, Tenerife had tied it at 24. Now we’d see what this crowd was made of, we already knew the Antwerp players were going to go with. The hype man led a thunder clap, so painfully tired yet somewhat necessary in this instance, during a timeout.
Somehow, some way, Tenerife found ways to blow it when the chance to go in front presented itself through multiple opportunities. Save for the drums of the hardcore fans, the noise from the home fans had dulled considerably. What the visitors couldn’t manage from the open, Mamadou Niang finally made sure of with a dunk. The storm had been weathered. Tenerife had tamed the home fans and, while far from in control, were where they needed to be at the break with a 31-26 lead.
That was just what the doctor ordered. A three from Tyler Kalinoski to open the second half and remind Antwerp that they could actually make shots. No matter, Tenerife quickly put the lead up to 10. They were in business mode now and cared little for the underdog story.
The man who made it happen the most for Antwerp was being kept quiet throughout. Through the middle of the third, Lee still only had 4 points on the night and had done little creatively for those around him. The architect of fun was being stifled and it was choking the rest of his young side.
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Fatigue truly messes you up. My own mental health issues are no secret, I’m walking proof that you can be a tremendously confident person and still suffer from anxiety issues, but even if I was as balanced as one could be upstairs (whatever normal is meant to be) I’d have felt it here. Just the 4 hours of sleep for a middle aged and less than athletic big dude is going to take its toll. Having been in go mode for going on 17 hours by the halfway point of this, it was really not the ideal way to be. Long days are the norm in the job and they are easier when you do something you love, but oh this one was taxing me something fierce.
Another three from Kalinoski as the shot clock ran out gave the Antwerp fans hope. Then we got Lee, weaving through traffic to set up an alley-oop for Ismael Bako. Finally some kind of a spark and the Giants were willing to work with embers. Tenerife had forced this into their kind of game, led by their D and built out. Every single crack Antwerp could find would suffice just so long as they found a way to do something with it.
The punch, the success, Lee fed Dave Dudzinski a three and it raised Lee as much as those in attendance. The gap was down to 4, the Giants were alive. Bako with the defensive board and away ran the Giants again. Lee to Tate, he drew the foul. Only the one made but it was back to a possession.
Yet another Lee lob, this time converted by Trevor Thompson. The creator was back, now he had to find his shot again. The gap was the same as at the half but a 5 point deficit at 42-37 felt a lot better than it had just 10 minutes earlier.
Right here, right now, it was a record crowd of 17,289 for the final. Right here, right now, that was great. The previous two tournaments went about as well as FIBA could have hoped. Tenerife won the first one in front of their own fans against a delightfully fun Banvit side. Last year, AEK got a lot of bodies into the OAKA as the Athens club lifted the crown. This time around, well you could forgive the governing body for being a tad worried.
With fewer than 1,000 travelling fans between them, literally, it wasn’t exactly an ideal outlook for FIBA’s showpiece club event. Saturday would help a bit but not a lot, you could bank on a few hundred more coming from Bologna at short notice. Tenerife? Not so much given the distance but at least Brussels is a well served airport due to it being the heartbeat of the EU and that’s only a 30 minute train away. Whatever reinforcements were coming just simply couldn’t make up for the other 15,000 odd seats that would otherwise be taken by locals. The tickets were sold, so money wise it’s fine, but when you put on a big show you’re thinking about how you sell the next one. No home side in the final would be bad for the look.
Giving up a three on the first possession of the final quarter was bad for Tenerife was bad. Watching Brussino go down in the process drawing a foul to make it a 4 point play was a lot worse. Then came a turnover right away by the Giants. This was not good, not good at all.
After a lull, another three by Brussino and this stretched the lead to 13, given they’d won each of the last 20 games in this competition where they had held a 10 point lead at any stage and 39 of 41 all-time it didn’t look good for Antwerp. It was no more than Tenerife deserved. Only poor execution in the second quarter had prevented them setting up a blowout before the half. Now they were in close-out mode and of no mood for mercy. Rocky was still standing after 15 rounds but Chuck Wepner didn’t hear the final bell. This was real life and the islanders were all too keen to let the Giants know.
Kalinoski, bless him, still had the fight from deep with his third three of the night but his occasional heroics weren’t near enough here. Tenerife were just too damn smart. The final 6 minutes or so were reminiscent of a rather less well-known fight. Roy Jones Jr unified the light heavyweight belts with a dominant points win over Reggie Johnson in Biloxi, Mississippi back in 1999. The recently launched TV3 in Ireland showed the fight, I taped it and got up on Sunday to watch the best in the world in action. After two rounds of thrills, it became a case of Jones just keeping Johnson away. A procession, no need to go mad, he just kept winning rounds until the end.
Tenerife got their win, it wasn’t close at the death, but they didn’t have to go mad down the stretch to do it.
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