It was meant to be a formality for the hosts but, riding a wave of emotion, Ukraine stunned Italy to move to 3-0 in Group C of EuroBasket 2022. Emmet Ryan reports from an extraordinary evening in Milan
There was a symphony of swearing coming from just behind me. Ukraine was leading by 8 or 9 in the fourth quarter, I don’t really remember exactly how much, but a call had gone against them. Alex Proshuta, a journalist, a resident of Kyiv, a citizen of Ukraine, and, most importantly, my friend was just not having it. It began with low level cursing in Ukrainian, it then moved to standing and shouting fuck. Then came the roar of bullshit. The rest, I forget, but what he didn’t know then was that within a few minutes he’d be tweeting this with justified confidence a minute from the buzzer.
WE BEAT ITALY IN BASKETBALL
— Oleksandr Proshuta (@alex_proshuta) September 5, 2022
Ukraine didn’t just beat Italy. They hung with the home favourites, built around Utah Jazz star Simone Fontecchio and unheard of familiarly of 6 players from Olimpia Milano. The Italians were the ones that were meant to have all the chemistry on their side. Gone were the iso heavy days of Simone Piangiani, this was a slick outfit with movement and shooters that could make anyone dizzy with its passing. This was meant to be such a formality that the Mediolanum Forum had huge empty spaces around the arena, including almost the entirety behind the bucket at the far end from the press seats, whereas the arena had been packed for the opening night win over Estonia and the narrow loss to Greece.
This was never going to be Italy’s night but nobody knew it until it was too late to do anything about it.
Through three quarters it didn’t follow the script but it never seemed like Italy were in real danger. Ukraine trailed after the first by 5, by 4 at halftime, and had it all tied up going into the fourth but it was easy to assume Italy would find that extra gear. Group C had seen plenty of courageous efforts, Estonia against Ukraine and Croatia in particular, but no upsets. Order was the norm here despite chaos reigning across the rest of the tournament. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk was ready to inflict some chaos.
Almost a decade ago, he was the wunderkind at the 2014 FIBA World Cup with hopes high that he’d be one and done or maybe two and done then go to the NBA. He hit a roadblock at Kansas, doing the full 4 years before getting picked up by the LA Lakers in the second round and bouncing around the NBA with four teams in as many years before getting waived by the Toronto Raptors right before this tournament started. It didn’t help his cause that his form coming in from World Cup qualifying was awful. Granted, he’d carried Ukraine over the line against Estonia but even that didn’t prepare anyone for what was to come.
Fontecchio might as well have been paper as Mykhailiuk charged through him time and again. He didn’t even get the worst of it, that was reserved for Stefano Tonut who looked hapless against the fired up Svi. The line on the night was 25 points on 50 per cent shooting, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals.
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For the first few months of the invasion, and a few times since, Alex has written columns for the paper I write for back in Dublin, the Business Post. It gave me a regular reason to talk to him throughout all of this. The format was simple, I’d send him WhatsApp voice notes with questions, he’d respond, we’d go back and forth, and an article would be the result. It was a way of sharing what was going on in Ukraine with the Irish people through a voice I understood and could relay to them.
We’d always talk about basketball, even if that wasn’t exactly top of mind for readers of a business paper. It is his work, the main thing that keeps him sane or insane depending on what exactly is happening. At Triple, a basketball themed craft beer pub in Milan on Sunday night, we chatted hoops interspersed with him telling me stories of his experiences. As always, the conversation moved all over but, with regards to the Italy game, it was a light affair. Ukraine had no pressure, the core job of qualifying for the knockout stages was already done.
Yet there was pressure. The pressure of knowing that this roster had been fortunate enough to evade the war. The whole team was in Spain for a World Cup qualifier when things started in February. They haven’t returned but they have family there, they have friends, and they have to mentally deal with knowing that they are safe and able to play sport while others close to them are far less fortunate.
The emotion of that, of what it all means, is something I hope I never have to truly understand. Still, you could see it in the passion of players like Issuf Sanon throughout all three opening games. These guys really are playing for more than just a jersey and they know it.
With around 3 minutes to go, it sank in that there was no Italy comeback coming. They were bereft of ideas and there was no one big shot coming to rally them. The fans, those that were there, who had been sheepish all game finally started to criticise their players. What we didn’t know then but do now is that Ainars Bagatskis had been firing up his side like nobody’s business all night.
Down by 6 in 2nd Q Ainars called time-out
During it Ukrainian TV turned of the sound for 15 seconds because he destroyed team with rain of curse words
But some platforms kept it full
Don't make me look like clown!!
Do you like to be fucked by them? (c)
The rest is history.
— Oleksandr Proshuta (@alex_proshuta) September 5, 2022
It takes around 2 minutes and 30 seconds to get from the media tribune to meet the players after a game. The normal routine is that if a game is close or could be close, you stay to the end and hope you’re not out of breath. If it’s not and you’ve got video to shoot then you get your ass up and head on over. With 1.27 to go, whatever doubt was left was gone and it was time to move. Alex didn’t, this was a moment for him and Anna, another Ukrainian journalist who travelled, to savour. Anna got there just in time to chat to Alex Len, I met Alex at the top of the steps after, dapped him up and got back to work.
This is Ukraine’s night. All of Ukraine’s night. A well-earned one too.