Pops Mensah-Bonsu’s dreams of becoming the first British player to win a Euroleague title were left in tatters as FC Barcelona roared into Sunday’s final with a 64-54 win over CSKA Moscow.
The Great Britain international played just three minutes of a semi-final that saw both sides well below their best, the Londoner notching up a single steal. In his absence, CSKA’s Ramunas Siskauskas hit a game-high 19 points but it wasn’t enough to contend with a steady but sure Barcelona who will meet Olympiakos after they survived a titanic battle with Partizan Belgrade before prevailing 83-80.
In the opening last-four tie at Bercy, CSKA, the 2008 European champions, burst out of the blocks with a 9-2 run but their Spanish rivals hit back, reeling off eight unanswered points to snatch a 12-11 lead at the end of the first quarter.
With Minnesota Timberwolves GM David Kahn watching on, Ricky Rubio underlined just why he was snapped up early in last year’s NBA Draft by sparking a 10-0 burst midway through the second period that pushed Barcelona into a 27-19 lead.
Up 29-21 at half-time, Barca were in control but not comfortable with memories still fresh of their late collapse to CSKA at this stage 12 months ago. But after both sides struggled mightily to convert from three-point range in the initial stages, suddenly, their shooters found their touch.
Trajan Langdon brought Moscow within four before Rubio hit an open three that increased the gap to 39-31. And while CSKA pressed desperately, Boniface Ndong downed their spirits to put Xavi Pascual’s men 47-41 in front with ten minutes left.
The Russians tried to make history repeat itself but to no avail. Anton Ponkrashov converted off a block to guide CSKA to within three but Barcelona found an extra gear when it mattered. And when Rubio fed Fran Vazquez for a slam to put their side 56-50 in front, it broke CSKA’s resolve for food as the Catalan giants breezed into the final.
“We played as a team 40 minutes, and we had all the team together and that’s very important," said Rubio. "We had players who could score. We had our bench players helping us out and that made the difference.”
Olympiakos' progress required more effort in an astonishing overtime clash with Partizan Belgrade which went right to the wire before the Reds of Pireaus prevailed in overtime.
The sides were level at 52-52 entering the final but an 8-2 run from Partizan gave the Serbs breathing space. However Olympiakos, losers in the semis last year in Berlin, ratcheted up their defence to haul themselves back into contention. And 11-2 flurry edged the Greeks in front with a minute left as scores from Josh Childress and Milos Teodosic gave their side a 65-62 cushion.
Dusan Kecman put the 5000 manic Hellenic fans on edge when he levelled from long range and their hearts sank when Bo McCalebb converted to push Belgrade ahead again. Childress, the former Atlanta Hawks star, restored parity at 67-67 with a resounding dunk after an Olympiakos time-out but McCalebb missed the chance to seal victory in regulation when his last, gasp trey missed the mark.
And it ultimately proved costly as Olympiakos' big-money stars seized control in overtime with Linas Kleiza scoring four of his team-high 19 points in the decisive run. Although Alix Rasic twice brought Belgrade back to within a single point in the closing minute, Yannakis Panagiotis' men held their nerve on the foul line.
Teodosic hit two free-throws in the dying seconds and once more, the Serbs suffered as Rasic's desperate three-pointer fell short.