The Balkan team recorded their second consecutive victory in the FIBA Cup and dramatically increased their chances of qualifying for the next stage of the tournament. The Bulgarian champion beat the Portuguese Sporting Lisbon 81:70 (20:22, 31:11, 12:21, 18:16) in its “Arena Botevgrad” hall. Key to the success of the Botevgrad players was the second quarter, in which Petar Zlatanovic’s team created a lecture on the shooting of its rival, and even before the break, Balkan had scored 12 three-pointers.
Thus, the “greens” take sole first place in group “A” with a perfect balance of 2-0, while Sporting remains in second position with an asset of 1-1. Third is Hungary’s Alba Fehervar with 0-2, and the fourth team in the group is Israel’s Bnei Herzliya, which ended its participation in the competition after the war in Israel.
In each of their attacks, the Sporting side tried to get the ball off the post of their centre, Eduard Ekior, who quickly drew Malik Toppin’s first personal foul. However, the American protected himself from more fouls after that, and the match was moving evenly at the beginning after a three-pointer by Martin Sotirov for 5:5. Seconds later, Sotirov hit his second triple of the game to give Balkan its first lead of the game at 8:5. Sporting didn’t stay behind for too long and capitalized on a mistake by the hosts, with Michael Moore on target at 11:13 on the ensuing rush.
Botevgrad residents, however, continued to maintain a solid success rate when shooting from the three, after this time Devin Harris became the author of a successful shot from behind the arc for 14:13. However, Balkan lost its rhythm in the minutes towards the end of the first quarter, when the Portuguese created a series of seven consecutive points in 14:20 in their favor. Meanwhile, Dimitar Dimitrov was forced to leave the court in order to have his head wound bandaged after receiving an elbow from a rival competitor. Fortunately, the home team’s shooting kept going, and thanks to it, the home team lost by only two points after the end of the first quarter – 20:22 in favor of Sporting.
Balkan started the second quarter with several misses from the penalty line, but the good news for the Bulgarian champion was that after only 38 seconds of play he managed to draw three team fouls on his opponent – 24:22 in favor of the hosts. Ridiculous misses followed on both sides, with Botevgrad maintaining their two-point lead at 27:25. Dimitar Dimitrov returned to the floor bandaged and instantly reminded of himself with a great three-pointer to extend Balkan’s lead to seven points at 32:25. However, Sporting did not give up easily and created a mini-series of four in a row to return to a minimal distance from its opponent at 32:29.
Michael Dixon continued to terrorize the Portuguese defense with his 11th point of the game, and soon after Carl Lipps also got involved in the offensive plan for Balkan to regain the lead from six points at 37:31. After being unconvincing in his performances until now, Nikolay Grozev finally uncorked with a three-pointer to increase the distance to double digits – 41:31 in favor of the Botevgrad residents. The incredible series of Balkan continued to grow, and the difference in favor of the hosts was already 14 points at 45:31. The 11th triple for Balkan was scored by Devin Harris, who set a distance of exactly 15 points for the Bulgarian champion – 48:33. Carl Lipps also joined his team’s punitive action, as at the break Balkan led 51:33 on 12/24 shooting from the three.
The third period started much weaker for the hosts, who could no longer rely on their high success rate when shooting from the three. Balkan had scored only two points in five minutes of the start of the part, but something similar applied to his opponent, as the advance of Balkan was still good – 53:41. Karl Lipps stopped the fall of the champions with an accurate shot from behind the arc for 56:41. However, Sporting’s basketball players found a way to answer Botevgrad residents, maintaining a ten-point difference at 58:48 at the end of the third quarter.28
Sporting’s series from the beginning but the second half was already 7:18, and this was not at all good news for Balkan, who lost their organization in attack and already led by only seven points at 58:51. A basket by Dimitar Dimitrov allowed the Bulgarian team to regain their confidence, but unfortunately the quarter ended with a basket and a foul by Eduard Ekior, who made the score 60:54 and earned the fourth personal foul of the Balkan captain. However, in the last second of the quarter, Dimitrov managed to win three penalty shots after a foul from the triple, and he did not make a single mistake and fixed the score 63:54 in favor of the team from Botevgrad before the start of the final period.
Despite another dose of difficulties, the Balkan team managed to record a series of six consecutive points, which was completed by a basket and a foul by Malik Topin for 69:56. After that, however, Topin missed three consecutive fouls and committed his fifth personal foul, thus Dimitar Dimitrov had to finish the match at the center position – 69:59 in favor of Balkan. Martin Sotirov flashed an important basket at 71:59, but then Sporting broke its drought without a three-pointer in the game and scored its first three-pointer in its 14th attempt at 71:62 after a basket by Ron Curry.
Karl Lipps, however, made sure to repel the intentions of Sporting and through his four consecutive points, the double-digit difference was again written on the scoreboard – 75:62 in the middle of the last part. The Bulgarian champion fulfilled his goal not only to keep his lead, but also to increase it even more, as this time Devin Harris took the role of leader with four unanswered points for his team – 79:64. With two minutes left until the final whistle, the hosts continued to have a 15-point lead and were one step away from victory – 81:66. Sporting reduced the gap by four points by the end of the match, but there was no time for more and Balkan won the match with 81:70.
Carl-Johan Lipps led Balkan with a double-double of 23 points and 14 rebounds. Devin Harris (11 assists), Michael Dixon and Martin Sotirov each added 13 points, and Dimitar Dimitrov added 11 points.
Eduard Ekior was the top scorer for Sporting with 24 points and 8 rebounds. Ron Curry added 18 points and 8 steals, and Tyree Marshall had 11 points and 10 rebounds.
BALKANS: Devin Harris, Martin Sotirov, Karl Lipps, Dimitar Dimitrov, Malik Topin
SPORTING: Carlos Cardoso, Michael Moore, Ron Curry, Marko Lonkovic, Edward Ekior
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Photos: Vladimir Ivanov