On the one hand there was a former European power looking to show it really was on the way back. On the other, there was a team that had reigned supreme in its homeland and now sought a first European final. It should have been a cracker, instead dire shooting from Brose Bamberg ensured that no matter what Virtus Bologna did this was always going to be a clunker. Emmet Ryan sat through the malaise in the Sportpaleis
Virtus Bologna were perfectly fine throughout, often good, occasionally very good, but they never needed to be great. They had their spots of brilliance but they didn’t need too many of them as Brose Bamberg failed horribly in their maiden trip to a European finals weekend with a listless display. It was truly a pity as the 9 time German champions started with the type of fire that meant a banger looked likely early.
Cliff Alexander was having none of Kelvin Martin’s weak sauce. The Bamberg big man swatted away the tame effort to open the scoring as the Basketball Champions League Final Four got under way. His one-handed finish of an alley-oop from Nikos Zisis got the German fans in good spirits early. The optics were of a heavyweight fight of old, one team in white and the other in black although there was no formal title holder defending here. Alexander was out there slugging, looking for anything to hit.
What Bologna lacked in muscle, they made up for in being dangerously streaky. Kevin Punter got the smaller travelling support from the Italian club in good spirits from deep but Mr MVP, we’ll get to that, Tyrese Rice answered right back. We had ourselves a bit of a slugfest early.
It wasn’t nervy but it was sloppy. Both sides were happy to get aggressive offensively but everything was slipping here and there. Punter was making the fewest errors and got Virtus a bit of a lead while Bamberg’s inside game with Alexander sitting ensured the Italians kept it. Things were less than pleasant for Bamberg after 10 minutes, with Virtus leading 22-11.
Antwerp is a tremendously navigable city. From the central train station to my AirBnB, a 15 minute walk. From there to the metro to the Sportpaleis, 3 minutes on foot. Come the morning for a press conference in the Hilton, it will be just the 4 minutes walking. Yet the Sportpaleis itself feels so different to the heart of the centre. The area outside is a mix of industrial and semi-urban surroundings, the arena itself is nothing to look out from the exterior either. It just looks like a giant warehouse.
Then you step inside and it hits you. This is a sweet spot. Neil Young is playing here soon too. The press lounge was downright pleasant, even if the chairs seemed unsuited to my ample frame. This, the first trip where I had brought the kit with me was at least a light one in terms of complications. Then inside the main arena and it was downright cavernous.
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Katharina, the Bamberg social media maven, was based four seats up from me and not having the ideal posts to make as she relayed the reactions to fans watching back in Upper Franconia. The arena there was hosting a watch party on its big screens for those that didn’t make the trip. As the crow flies, Bamberg isn’t that far, but unfortunately the city isn’t home to an international airport. It’s 2 hours south to Munich and then a similar journey by air to get to Antwerp. Sub-optimal but the few that had made the journey were being heard.
The second quarter didn’t begin awfully for Bamberg, it was just awful basketball and Bologna had dropped to their level of error strewn offence. A Ricky Hickman iso make went in with a capella of Gigi D’Agostino’s Amour Toujours behind him from the Freak City crew.
Through the middle of the quarter is was quite ding-dong before Rice gave a knowing look to the crowd after a three, bring him to 13 points on the night. It was manageable, and there was no need to worry yet. The passing got slicker from Bamberg, the deficit move back to single digits, there was plenty of time.
Being cavernous has disadvantages when none of the visiting sides have brought more than 300 fans apiece. In an 18,500 seat barn, even with the wild fans from Freak City to the left of press row, the sea of grey seats were obvious. The evening is a sellout but most of the Antwerp fans would not be along until the start of the second quarter of this one.
As we waited for the game to begin, I ran into Vladimir Spivak and Seb Komoianos. The former was here with the BCL, while Seb informed me over the odd but expected news from Greece as Olympiacos were set to be relegated for forfeiting too many games.
Belgium was far from exempt. Despite the biggest game for the sport here since the 1980s taking place in a huge arena, the league still had three games on tonight. Basketball folk are awfully complicated sometimes.
Mario Chalmers, the high profile mid-season signee for Bologna, too the point and promptly looked to prove why he was worth all the hype. It hadn’t exactly been an explosive start in Basket City for the two-time NBA champion (along with quite the resume of honours in college ball). He hadn’t been scoring a lot but he’d been shooting plenty. Sub-optimal but enough for now with the many other pieces around him. Despite his arrival, this was still Punter’s team and he rolled one off his beard from three to push Bologna into their biggest lead of the night so far late in the half.
For all of Rice’s assurances with a single nod, it was looking awfully rough for Bamberg at the half as they trailed, 42-28.
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The third opening with a three from Amath M’Baye wasn’t what Bamberg needed. Whatever you want by Status Quo was ringing out and Bologna had been taking the lot so far despite being far from lights out. Virtus had been just good enough and that was all that had been required against a Bamberg side that was all too reliant on Rice. Punter made another three to make it a 20 point game.
The breaks were just going their way now too. Chalmers put up a hopeful effort as he fell, as much to make sure the foul was shooting as with any hope of a make, it dropped and he nailed the and-1. This one was going far better than Virtus could have realistically hoped for.
The thing about Rice is, he’s got a history of getting it done when it matters. With Maccabi Tel Aviv, he was perfectly good all season up until the 2014 Euroleague Final Four when in the closing stages of the opening game he turned into an unstoppable monster. The explosion came a little earlier in the final over Real Madrid but he sauntered to MVP honours. With Khimki he’d subsequently pick up Eurocup finals, and overall, MVP honours too but then he entered purgatory also known as FC Barcelona after 2014 and before this season. There was no one thing to pinpoint but the relationship reached a point where he comfortably hit a #FreeTyrese stage, languishing on Barca’s reserves playing alongside youth players and eventually escaping.
In Bamberg, he’s got a new lease of life. He’s leading a team, and it’s definitely his team, with a fanbase that’s insane. The city is tiny but he’s got the control he needs and is playing as the guy in important games. He’s the one everybody looked to in the German Cup Final when Bamberg beat Alba Berlin. Here was no different, he was in another European finals weekend and the best hope of his side succeeding. The help however wasn’t exactly coming in droves
Down the stretch of the third, with his team ailing, Rice looked to create. Once more the option he created led to nothing from his supporting cast. Pietro Aradori quickly punished the mistake to restore the 20 point gap. Tenerife were benefiting almost as much as Bologna, with the fire being taken out of this one and nothing to hype up the Antwerp fans before the night’s feature attraction.
A three from Rice, who else, got it back to the half-time deficit but this one had fallen into a snoozer. As Rice huddled his guys up on the floor for the final minute of the third, it was hard to see what else he could say to them except to start making buckets. He called his own number on the next possession. Iron. They wouldn’t get another before the end of the frame. 53-39 and Bologna were 10 minutes from their first European final since winning this competition’s effective predecessor, Eurochallenge, in 2009.***
All the way from Ukraine, European basketball’s best kept secret only appears during stoppages. The Red Foxes are a dance crew who are brought to basically any major tournament of note, including 8 EuroBaskets and 3 Olympic Games. They aren’t a single side’s crew, although some of the wealthier sides have hired them for multiple regular season games, they’re more a sign for teams that if they have reached a game where the Red Foxes are dancing then they have gone pretty far that season.
Their back story is fascinating, as Elena the founder wanted a top tier dance crew that would merit being sought after around the continent and wider world so she set to work building it into a monster. Outside of basketball, you’d never know they exist, but they are revered here as being the A game on the continent.
Another quarter begins, another three for Virtus to open the scoring. Punter again, essentially penciling himself in as the likely MVP winner should Bologna go on to lift the trophy on Sunday evening. Virtus kept easing ahead, with no reason to believe they were going to have anything to worry about.
One look at Bamberg’s shot chart told a horrid story. In the paint they had been consistently awful throughout the evening. Rice’s heroics aside, they were irrelevant and even then they had hardly looked competitive since the opening minutes of the game. The Tenerife fans, probably bored, decided to start a few chant while the Bamberg defence looked lost even when Bologna failed to ignite.
The gap went below 20 again because of the only man in black worth a damn on this night of dismay. For all their dominance in Germany through the bulk of this decade, it was only now as they ceded their domestic control to Bayern that Bamberg had come this close to a continental final. At the first opportunity, they had blown it royally. The guy was there but he was a lone bright spot amidst the darkness.
Through the final few minutes, Bologna could coast. Saša Đorđević was still animated but that’s his default setting. The job was more than done. After a decade in the shadows, Virtus Bologna had brought Basket City back to a European title game, with victory today 67-50
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