Basketball: Roca Team pull off historic feat to reach Euroleague Final Four

Jordan Loyd: AS Monaco Basket v Maccabi Tel Aviv

On a night of high tension and high drama, AS Monaco Basketball beat Maccabi Tel Aviv (97-86) to become the first French side to reach the Euroleague Final Four since 1997.

Just like the entire five-match series, which came down to a final battle at the Salle Gaston Médecin on Wednesday night, this was an emotional rollercoaster. The series started with a demoralising defeat in Monaco but ended in the Principality on a very different note, on the highest of highs in what was undoubtedly the biggest night in the club’s history (3-2 series victory).

Photo of the Salle Gaston Médecin at full-time by Luke Entwistle, Monaco Life

Both sides failed to stop the opposition’s free-flowing attacks in the first five minutes with 35 points scored, but when the defences did make their appearance, it was Maccabi who held the upper hand.

15-point streak turns game on its head

John DiBartolomeo scored just one of Maccabi’s 14 three-pointers on the night to fire the Israeli side into a seven-point lead (26-33) at the end of the first quarter, but the Roca Team roared back spectacularly.

Mike James (21 points) scored five consecutive points to level the scores (33-33), but Monaco weren’t finished there. A James two-pointer plus a foul, followed by a Jordan Loyd (21 points) three-pointer turned the game on its head, but the 15-point streak hadn’t knocked the stuffing out of Maccabi, who showed fight to stay in the tie, especially in the third quarter, their efficiency outside the paint (14/29 three-pointers) proving a crucial arm in a fierce battle.

The Maccabi fans didn’t come in the same numbers for this fifth and final match, but they were certainly still audible inside the Salle Gaston Médecin. Photo by Luke Entwistle, Monaco Life

Monaco were constantly under the cosh, and Maccabi’s defensive grip tightened early in the fourth quarter to overturn the deficit with Donatas Motiejunas (six points) and Chima Moneke (10 points) particularly culpable of sloppy build-up play.

“Mike James is not Monaco.”

Against Olympiacos in last year’s Euroleague decider, when the pressure was on, the Roca Team crumbled, but this isn’t the team of last year, and over the course of the campaign, they have grown in stature, in confidence and in experience.

They had to lean on all of that experience in the final stages, as well as the roaring support of the sell-out crowd, who were joined by Prince Albert II and Aleksej Fedoricsev for the historic occasion.  (74-77).

Photo of Prince Albert II, Oleksiy Yefimov and Aleksej Fedoricsev by Luke Entwistle, Monaco Life

James was seemingly struggling in the dying stages, but as Sasa Obradovic said post-match, “Monaco is not Mike James. Someone always steps in.” Instead, it was Loyd who stepped up, procuring fouls and registering eight consecutive points to change the direction of the match for the final time in what was another night of plot twists.

“This was a historical night for me, for Monaco.”

Wade Baldwin (27 points) was once against decisive 0utside the key to bring Maccabi within five (90-85), but it wasn’t enough. John Brown III, Okobo and Alpha Diallo put the final nails in the Maccabi coffin to send the Salle into raptures. History was made. Monaco are in the Final Four.

Beyond the collective and historic exploit pulled off by this Roca Team, it was also the accumulation of 18 years of individual effort as an emotional Obradovic revealed.

“I can’t explain how happy I am today,” began the Serbian coach. “It was emotionally demanding. This was a historical night for me, for Monaco, and for most of the guys. French basketball has been waiting for this time. We deserve this kind of appreciation, this kind of reward. We played the whole year with ups and downs and with a great level of basketball, which people have enjoyed. Tonight was a special night, the fans were close and you could feel it and it was leading us towards this big success. There are two games to play [to win the Euroleague]. Let’s keep dreaming.”

Rendez-vous with an old rival

“18 years I have waited for this. Each day I mentioned this. I have a great team, great management, and a great president to put me in a situation to do something with my life,” added Obradovic.

Wednesday’s victory offers a tantalising clash on 19th May, against the inflictors of Monégasque misery in last year’s Euroleague play-off series, Olympiacos.

Photo of Sasa Obradovic by Luke Entwistle, Monaco Life

“We’ve beaten them in two games, so we can beat them again. I think they’re a better team than last year, but we are too,” Obradovic told Monaco Life. Naturally, therefore, Obradovic, the Roca Team and Prince Albert II are dreaming big.

“It’s a great night for sport in the Principality.”

“At the start of the season, I didn’t have in my mind being Euroleague champion, but over the season, expectations grow, and you see the teams you play against, you see that you can have a chance. I’m sure that we’re going to be a difficult opponent and you never know,” said Obradovic.

“It’s a historic night. It’s a great night for sport in the Principality and I’m so proud of all the team, and all of the staff. We can dream, but it will be very difficult,” added Prince Albert II in an interview with Skweek. 

Through the hard work of the players, the coach, and the staff, this year, but also over the course of many years, during which this project has gone from humble beginnings to a European powerhouse, the Roca Team have earned the right to dream. There is enough evidence to prove that those dreams can become a reality in Kaunas, Lithuania later this month.

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Photo by Luke Entwistle, Monaco Life