Efes back-to-back Euroleague champions

The Turkish Airlines EuroLeague has its first back-to-back champion in nine years and just the fourth of the Final Four era after a showdown for the trophy on Saturday in Belgrade, Serbia, that did perfect justice to the spectacular season that came before it.

Efes back-to-back Euroleague champions

Anadolu Efes Istanbul made history by defending its crown from last season with a defensive-minded 57-58 victory over Real Madrid, the team with the most titles in competition history, 10. Efes became the first back-to-back EuroLeague champion since Olympiacos Piraeus in 2012 and 2013. The only other repeat winners since 1988, when the modern Final Four era began, are Maccabi Tel Aviv (2004 and 2005) and Jugoplastika Split (1989, 1990, 1991).

Walter Tavares had a monster first quarter to get Real off on the right foot, but it soon settled into a cat-and-mouse battle with ten lead changes and five ties going into the last 3 minutes, as his counterpart, Tibor Pleiss, scored 17 second-half points. A tip-in by Pleiss going into the final minute was good for a 55-58 lead as Real managed only a layup by Sergio Llull after that. Micic led Efes with 23 points, Pleiss added 19, and Shane Larkin 10. The rest of the Efes players had 6 points between them. Real’s sole double-digit scorer was Tavares, who had 12 of his 14 points in the first quarter. Llull came next with 9 points.

No team could find offensive momentum in the early going, despite a display of high-pace basketball on both ends. Micic’s single free throw was the only point that fell in the first 2 minutes. Adam Hanga broke the ice with a layup that was soon answered by an outside shot from Pleiss. Tavares then took over inside with consecutive buckets that pushed Real ahead, 6-4, but Micic replied from deep to tie it. Tavares kept rocking in the paint, providing six more points to build a 12-6 advantage for Los Blancos. Tavares added his 12th point to make it 15-8 entering the last minute, but Larkin revived Efes with a triple and a three-point play that brought Efes within 15-14 after 10 minutes. By then, Tavares had five offensive boards among his seven total, both of which were single-quarter records in any Final Four game.

Micic beat Tavares off-the-dribble to give Efes a 15-16 edge at the start of the second quarter. Jeffery Taylor hit a corner three to end Los Blancos’ drought from behind the arc, but Chris Singleton found an easy dunk, and Micic shined again, driving to the basket to keep Efes in charge, 18-20. Real didn’t tremble and soon recovered a 26-22 advantage behind a bucket by Sergio Llull and a powerful alley-oop slam by Vincent Poirier. Fabien Causeur followed with a contested layup, and Anthony Randolph made things worse for Efes, 29-22, with a three-pointer. Larkin and Micic took over on the other end, combining for 7 points that shrunk the difference to just one possession, 31-29. The rally didn’t go further, though, as a corner three-pointer by Randolph allowed Real to reach halftime ahead, 34-29.

Real widened the gap after the break to 37-29 thanks to a free throw by Tavares and a layup by Alberto Abalde. Pleiss counterattacked under the board, but that was the only Efes field goal for the first 6 minutes of the third quarter. Even though Real also struggled on offense, too, Hanga sank a long triple to make it 40-31 midway through the third quarter. The reigning champs found a solution in Pleiss, who first added free throws and then came up big from behind the arc to bring Efes within 40-36. Micic joined him with two more free throws that made it 40-38 and then added a layup later right after Yabusele scored inside as Real clung to a slim 42-40 advantage after 30 minutes.

Efes needed just one more minute to complete its rally through Micic, who drilled a contested three-pointer over Tavares for a 42-43 lead. Chris Singleton followed with a steal and a finish which extended it to 42-45 with 7 minutes remaining. Real held on thanks to the free-throw line, as Deck, Llull, and Poirier combined for 5 points, making it all square, 47-47. Pleiss’s next basket was replied to with a timely triple by Lllull to return the lead to Los Blancos, 50-49. Pleiss took over again, turning back-to-back assists by Micic into a corner jumper and a monster alley-oop to turn the tables again, putting Efes up 50-53 with 3 minutes to go. Even though Deck showed up from deep to forge a new tie, Micic answered quickly from the same place as Efes stayed in front, 53-56, entering crunch time. Real found Tavares inside to draw a foul that was turned into a free throw and an offensive rebound that provided another point from the line to keep it tight, 55-56. Pleiss was again a key factor for his team, as he made up for Micic’s missed layup with a decisive tip-in and a 55-58 advantage with 1:05 remaining. Llull got Los Blancos closer with an off-the-dribble layup on the next possession, 57-58, and still 0:44 to play. There were no more points in the game, though, as Real’s fouls allowed Efes to consume the remaining time and confirm a historic victory.

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