Gran Canaria 87-69 London Lions (21-15, 21-17, 20-10, 25-27)
Canaria – Balcerowski 16, Mutaf 13, Slaughter 11; Lions – Hruban 18, Zubcic 16, Koufos 11
The London Lions stand a good chance of making it into the top eight to reach the next round of EuroCup, a round-robin knock-out stage, but they will need to do more than just beat Aquila Trento, arguably the worst team in the group. Unfortunately, going up against one of the best in Gran Canaria for their third contest was hardly going to fill them with confidence.
Lions head coach Ryan Schmidt knew the challenge his team faced ahead of the game against Gran Canaria. He told the broadcast ahead of the team, and said: “This is a really good team. They’re deep skilled and have size… In order for us to have success tonight we need to counter that.”
Gran Canaria definitely had the EuroCup experience on its roster, including Andrew Albicy, who has been on the top stages in world basketball, such as World Cups and EuroBaskets with France. But Brits Luke Nelson and Ovie Soko have plenty of confidence playing against Spanish sides, with their own experience competing in Spanish leagues, as well as the NBA talent of Kosta Koufos, even if Sam Dekker was still out.
The difference in styles was immediately apparent. It’s often said that the BBL is more similar to the NBA style of play – isolation and pick and roll offence – and the first two Lions possessions had limited player movement as they failed to get the ball into Koufos in the post, which resulted in a Vojtech Hruban shot that bounced off the side of the backboard. This was followed up by an awkward floater from the big man.
It looked difficult for London compared to the good movement and passing from Gran Canaria.
The British side played excellent defence at times, so they made it difficult for the at-home Spaniards. Still, a handful of free throws and a jumper from Gran Canaria’s Aleksander Balcerowski got them off to a 5-0 start, until the Lions found Tomislav Zubcic for a long jumper to break the seal three minutes into the game.
Vitor Benite hit a three-point shot for the home team that would have looked long in an NBA game, but it was Soko keeping the Lions involved by getting rebounds, free throws and cutting hard when he didn’t have the ball.
Inspired by this, Josh Sharma chased a loose ball that was headed out of bounds after a questionable three attempt from Mo Soluade. A desperate reach forced it back inside, straight into the hands of Koufos under the basket, who jammed it home.
The Lions zone defence in the closing moments of the first quarter was working, but Albicy made them pay for packing the paint with a wide open three. On the Lions next offence, their sixth turnover resulted in an easy two for Gran Canaria’s Miquel Salvo to force a London timeout.
To start the second, Albicy got open again from distance on a set play, this time off a kickout from the post. Hruban responded with a bucket and a foul shot, then Nelson closed the gap to three with a three.
Good patience from Balcerowski in the low post saw London defenders fly around and force pressure but he wasn’t fazed. He waited for the perimeter defenders to relocate before turning into the lane for a fadeaway. Not to be outdone, Koufos received the ball in the middle of the paint on the other end and hooked a shot over Balcerowski to keep London within one point.
Halfway through the second quarter, Gran Canaria started to find holes in the Lions defence. Balcerowski kept creeping behind the last line of defence, and plenty of body movement created open shots on the perimeter.
A 10-point gap opened up with two minutes left in the half, and Schmidt put Koufos and Soko back in after a quick breather. The move immediately opened up the floor for Hruban, who hit his second three of the game.
This is where you can see the difference between the BBL and EuroCup levels of competition. In a domestic league, the Lions go to the bench and still have players on the court who can compete against the best in the BBL. In Europe, the talent level definitely dips, but for much of the first half the travelling team showed they could hang with one of the better teams in Europe, despite a 10-point deficit heading into the locker room.
The second half didn’t start as well as they hoped as the gap grew to 15 pretty quickly after a dribble, spin, fadeaway by Gran Canaria’s Damien Inglis in the middle of the key, and a three from AJ Slaughter extended it further.
The Lions were working in a man-to-man defence to create some different looks, but the experience of Gran Canaria helped them adjust quickly. The home team were able to spread the floor and create plenty of space for bigs to play in isolation from the middle of the floor. On other occasions they worked a high pick and roll to force switches, and good passing found the mismatch or open shot.
Zubcic finally got a three to fall, but it came off limited ball movement and the frustration was starting to become visible for a team that was down 17 points.
Dropped shoulders started to drag on the defensive end, as Lions players were beaten down the court for five on four situations. And while they tried to keep going on offence, a transition opportunity was scuppered between the usually reliable British duo of Soko and Nelson, as a kick-ahead pass went awry and Soko ran into the stands, and looked like he didn’t want to come back.
The Lions didn’t stand much of a chance of getting back into it, and they were soon down 20, then 24, and finished with an 18-point gap.
After the gap, Balcerowski said: “It was difficult in the beginning because they were confusing us with the zone. In defence they were switching to zone so we need to adjust that in the second half, so we did that. We were getting buckets, we were getting the fast breaks and stopping the ball, so it was tough but we managed to take it.”
Coach Schmidt wasn’t happy in the post-game interview, and said: “It was disappointing. Really disappointing. I don’t think we matched their physicality and toughness. I thought we were getting punked a lot and pushed off our spots on rebounds, but credit to them, they’re a well balanced team and tough for us.”
There is still hope that the Lions will improve when Sam Dekker returns to the line-up, but Gran Canaria showed that there are levels to EuroCup that London are yet to reach.