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Every fan of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague knows that KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz is renowned for its tough and unyielding spirit, the famous 'Baskonia Character' that has allowed Spanish side to record many memorable triumphs from unpromising positions.
Well, Baskonia did not play on Friday night but its home arena, Fernando Buesa, is serving as a wonderful venue for the Final Four. And in the second semifinal, CSKA Moscow 'borrowed' a strong dose of that celebrated Basque character to launch a remarkable comeback and oust reigning champ Real Madrid.
At the end of the third quarter, CSKA was in a bad place. A brief rally in the second quarter had been withstood by Real, which led 65-73 with ten minutes remaining and was dominating every aspect of the encounter. CSKA had made only 11-of-28 two-point attempts (39%) by then, was being outrebounded (24-30) and had registered more turnovers (9) than assists (8). Practically nothing was going right for Dimitris Itoudis's men.
Early in the fourth quarter Sergio Llull made a three-point play to stretch Real's lead to 9 points, and it was starting to look like CSKA was on the verge of yet another frustrating Final Four defeat.
No so fast. Despite having struggled to find its rhythm all night CSKA just refused to give up, and gradually the results came: Othello Hunter and Nando De Colo scored from close range, De Colo made 3 straight free throws, Will Clyburn scored from deep, Hunter slammed home a put-back, and Cory Higgins drove to dunk. Everyone was playing their part and CSKA's defense also stood up, restricting Madrid to just 5 points in more than 6 minutes after Llull's three-point play.
Eventually the lead swapped hands through De Colo's triple with 81 seconds remaining, and the rest of the way was about composure: CSKA defended with discipline, grabbed rebounds, used the clock intelligently and showed nerves of steel from the free-throw line, with De Colo (2), Rodriguez (2) and Higgins (4) making 8 straight foul shots to ensure the Spanish side would not be given an easy route back into the game.
All those ingredients proved to be enough to send CSKA into the Championship Game with a 95-90 victory which tasted all the sweeter on the back of several recent Final Four disappointments. This time around, nobody could question CSKA's character for a nanosecond.
"It showed the character of our team, of this group," said veteran center Kyle Hines. "We kept believing no matter what. Obviously, we felt we did not play our best basketball in the game, but we kept believing and kept fighting, and showed what this team really is."
De Colo, who played such a prominent part in his team's triumph, added: "It takes some character to just come back in the game, and tonight against Real Madrid even more. Like we talked before the game, we have to stick to the plan, stay together, to play 40 minutes regardless of what is happening on the court. And that is what we did. We feel great, we are very happy, but now we need to think about the next one."
The famous Baskonia Character? The CSKA Character, more like.
Just ask Hines, who recalled his team's playoffs series in the same arena as he laughed: "We have been here so long maybe it is starting to rub off. This team, no matter who stepped on the floor, everybody gave their all and that's what the true definition of the team was."