EuroBasket & European Basketball Tournaments Analysis • Análisis Torneos Europeos de Baloncesto y Eurobasket Here come the batmen!
At the beginning of the third quarter of the Euroleague quarter-final decider between Real Madrid and Power Electronics Valencia on Thursday night, an 11th player entered the game.
A bat began to dart this way and that, dipping as low as eye level for the players.
The ball flew through the air, but so did the bat.
Valencia's players might have believed that was a good sign for their team because the bat is the symbol of their city.
There are bats on manhole covers in Valencia, above the town hall, on team shirts - everywhere.
What they may not have realized, though, is the affinity Madrid's players have with that winged creature.
"That's our lucky bat," Clay Tucker said.
"We practiced with bats all week long.
"Once the bat came, I told everyone we were going to win."
So, while Manu Ginobili swatted a bat to the court while playing for San Antonio last season in an NBA game and earned the nickname Batman, there was no chance of his Argentina teammate, Real Madrid point guard Pablo Prigioni, doing the same.
Maybe the bat just wanted to be a part of history because Madrid wrote a famous chapter in theirs by beating Valencia 66-58 on Thursday to win the five-game series, 3-2, and reach the Final Four.
The last 10 minutes were something you won't soon forget, but would like to.
It was ugly.
Like an NFL game at Soldier Field in Chicago on a bitterly cold Sunday in January, it was a defensive struggle with the last period ending 8-7 in favor of Madrid.
All that mattered for Madrid was their victory.
It had been 15 years since the famous club had reached the Final Four.
The coach everyone expected to take Madrid to Barcelona was Ettore Messina, but he upped ship and left after a home demolition at the hands of Montepaschi Siena at the end of the Top 16.
The loss didn't impact Real Madrid in the standings as they had already clinched top spot, but Messina rightly pointed out that if fans are going to spend time and money to watch the team play, they deserve the best the players have to offer and against Montepaschi that night, maybe they hadn't given their best.
Messina's departure could have done two things.
It could have sent the club into a tailspin, or helped unify the players and fans, which is what he said he hoped would happen.
As the 3-2 series triumph over Valencia suggests, Messina's exit did the latter.
It brought everyone closer together.
"Messina's a great coach," said Tucker, one of the players left stunned by the coach's departure.
"He's a great person on and off the court and you can't take anything away from that.
"He made the decision to walk away from the team and we couldn't do anything about that.
"We respected his decision.
"But it did help us mentally in coming together as a team.
"With that happening, it prepared us for this (five-game series) and we were ready to get through it."
The man that deserves a lot of credit for Madrid reaching the Final Four is Emanuele Molin, Messina's longtime assistant.
Instead of leaving with his boss and good friend, Molin told Madrid he wanted to finish the job that Messina had started.
"It was a very strange situation for him," Tucker admitted.
"Messina and Molin had been together for what, 20 years?
"The one thing about Molin stepping in and taking his place, we kept the same system.
"Had another coach come in, it probably would have taken us a little bit more time to get used to it.
"So we were fortunate to have Molin step in."
One other thing that saved Madrid is the passion that exists at the club.
Madrid basketball is historically important, and you felt that during this entire five-game series.
They won two of the three games at the Caja Magica and also came from behind and won Game 3 at Valencia.
Everyone was at Game 5 on Thursday night, including club president Florentino Perez and football superstar Ronaldo.
The most important figures, though, were the banner-waving, drum-beating Madristas.
They created an awesome, ear-splitting atmosphere.
It was loud, intimidating.
The noise was continuous and gave the Madrid players a lift.
There were also the journalists of Madrid, some of whom Messina took a parting shot at when he left the club.
There were hugs in the mixed zone because those journalists had seen the basketball team play second fiddle to Barcelona for so many years.
"It made a huge difference," Tucker said.
"The fans really came out and supported us.
"We packed the house tonight and like you said, that ugly fourth quarter got us through."
At least one aim has been accomplished for the season.
Madrid has ended their long spell without a Final Four appearance.
"With the way this club is, and the surrounds, I'm amazed they haven't been to the Final Four in such a long time," Tucker said.
"But every team goes through a stretch where they don't get any championships, in the Super Cup or the ACB or getting to the Final Four.
"Now that we've got past that stage, it's up to us to go and try to win the Final Four."
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