The opening match in the VTB United League for «Astana» was held in the northern capital of Russia, against an extremely dangerous rival — the local «Zenit». It is worth noting that before the game, many were inclined that the hosts would win in this confrontation and there were a lot of factors in favor of such an opinion, including the fact that «Astana» is losing to «Zenit» in their games, and they celebrated home victory only once — back in 2015. The «Zenit» head coach did not announce several of the team's leaders Jordan Mickey and Billy Baron in the final roster. Perhaps Jordan and Billy were injured, or Pasquale let the players rest, hoping for an easy win, if so than he was so wrong. As a result, «Astana» won a very beautiful and rather big victory, but first things first.
Our team won the tip-off, but the first attack did not bring any points, Nikolay Bazhin was not accurate. But Anthony Hickey very quickly robbed rivals and again brought Bazhin to the forefront of the attack. This time Kolya did not miss and opened the scoring in the match, and also scored the first points of “Astana” in the VTB United League season. Meanwhile, “Zenit” was in no hurry to open a score, and Barford scored his first points in the VTB league. Only after that, the hosts finally found a way to our basker, scoring one free through. Then Anthony Hickey made his debut with an effective three-pointer, Jaylen Barford scored two more points and Maxim Marchuk was accurate from a distance. During this time, the Petersburgers were able to increase their score by only two points. The difference in favor of “Astana” came close to the double-digit figure and Xavi Pascual, the mentor of the opponents, had nothing to do but take a time-out. After that, the hosts started to play more efficiently, but “Astana” also did not slow down. Marchuk was again accurate from beyond the arc and for the first time in the game the difference became double-digit, and the points that had been scored by Barford and Hickey kept this difference in the region of ten points. At the end of the first quarter Skylar Spencer sent the ball into the rivals' basket twice, thereby opening his personal account in the VTB United League, and keeping +10 advantage for our team — 15:25. But the second game segment did not start so well. “Zenit” in a minute cut the gap twice. Nikolay Bazhin tried to keep our advantage with his three-pointer, but for the next three minutes our players were not lucky under the rivals' glass, the latter completely demolished the gap at the end of the fourth minute of the period and took the lead for the first time in the match. Jaylen interrupted the goalless pause and the struggle for leadership began all over again. A spectacular dunk from Marchuk and Barford's points supported the Kazakh team's fragile advantage, but once again the hosts were able to break it and level the score. Already Darko Russo was forced to take a time-out, before the opponents' free throws, which eventually brought them forward. Anthony Hickey evened the score a minute before the break, but that remaining minute was dominated by the hosts, who won the first half with a score of 44:39.
A successful start and an extremely unsatisfactory second quarter resulted in five points lag for our team. But fifteen minutes of rest and motivation from our coach resonated with the team's actions. Barford opened the third period with an effective pass, and Mark Tikhonenko followed up with his first three-pointer in the VTB United League and leveled the score. Barford, Hickey and Marchuk were once again distinguished by their performance — two points each for the Americans and another three-pointer for Maxim. Of course, it is worth noting the most beautiful pass from Anthony Hickey to Maxim with this successful long-distance attempt. “Zenit” during this time had hard luck. Only after three and a half minutes of the third period they scored only one point from the penalty line. In the middle of the period, Tikhonenko again scores a point and our advantage is again crosses the double-digit line. The hosts responded with two successful attacks, but again Jaylen Barford, who was accurate from everywhere with two free throws, three-pointer and an alley-up, did not give them a chance to equalize the score. But when he landed after the alley-up, he unsuccessfully landed on the opponent's leg and was slightly injured. By this time, Darko Russo sent Anthony Hickey and Skylar Spencer to the bench, who had three fouls each and until the end of the third quarter, the Kazakhstani brigade and Mark Tikhonenko were sent to defend our advantage. Our guys played confidently, and Dmitry Gavrilov perfectly joined the game and again brought the difference to 10 points, and Kolya Bazhin effectively finished the period by blocking the rivals' throw — 55:65. Those who finished the third period started in the fourth one as well and began to press the opponent: Tikhonenk brining another three points, Rustam Murzagaliev gained the first points this season with a very difficult throw from beyond the arc, and Bazhin confidently made his way under the rivals' ring and our handicap was already +17. “Zenit” had quite a lot of time to turn the tide of the game, but at the same time their lag was substantial. The hosts had an excellent middle of the quarter and revived the intrigue, during this time only Dmitry Gavrilov distinguished himself in our squad — he checked how strong the rivals' basket was with a slam dunk. The Kazakhstani advantage was reduced by more than two times and five minutes before the end “Zenit» was losing only 8 points. Darko Russo preferred to take a time-out, plan the actions of his players and knock down the rivals' fuse, and it worked 100%. “Astana” was aiming to keep the score and stretched their attacks, while the opponents, who were interested in every minute, lost concentration and with each miss their nervousness increased. Our players also did not often send the ball to the goal, but most importantly, the clock was ticking, and our advantage not only remained, but also grew. Kolya Bazhin again scored points from under the basket, and after almost three minutes of goalless lull from both teams, it was he who interrupted it with two precise free throws. A minute to the end, +12 for “Astana” and the victory is practically in our pocket. Anthony Hickey removed even the slightest doubts about our victory, by implementing a quick pass. The outcome was already a foregone conclusion, and the end of the match was put by Anthony Hickey. 69:83 — a very loud and the second in history victory of “Astana” in St. Petersburg.
«Zenit» head coach — Xavi Pascual:
- “Zenit” — the American Alex Poytress was upsetting our team most of all with 19 points, 3 interceptions and a block shot. Jordan Loyd scored 14 points.
- «Astana» — in our squad today everyone showed themselves from an excellent perspective, the debuts in the VTB United League were especially successful. Jaylen Barford, without a doubt, became the hero of the match — 24 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals and a block shot. Anthony Hickey has a great debut with 15 points and 9 assists. Maxim Marchuk played a very confident game with one hundred percent performance — 11 points, 3 rebounds and a block shot. 11 points, a powerful block-shot and no less confident play from Nikolai Bazhin. Well, Mark Tikhonenko and his three did not leave anyone indifferent — 9 points and 6 rebounds.
«Congratulations to «Astana». No question, they deserve to win. They were motivated, we, in turn, were out of the game, we had no interest in playing today, we had no energy. I don't know why, to be honest. I'm telling the truth — we were out of the game. During the break in the locker room we analyzed the game, we understood it, but in the third quarter Astana made a breakthrough. We made a mistake after mistake. We lacked character today. We did everything wrong».
Head coach of «Astana» — Darko Russo:
«Today we have beat one of the best teams in Europe. I'm happy. We started training on July 17th and got better with every training session. Today we played without the burden of responsibility, because we played against «Zenit». Everyone expected us to lose, but we didn't give up. I'm happy about that. We played well in defense, acted wisely in attack. This is just one game, we will forget it. VTB United League is a strong league, there are many flights here, you always need to be concentrated. Now we are not playing with the full roster — a new player will join the team in a couple of days. I think we will become even stronger.»
“Astana” starts the season immediately from the third line in the standings, displacing “Zenit” from it. And only CSKA and UNICS are ahead of our team, which are also unbeaten, but have already played more games. «Zenit» lost two positions at once, letting go not only «Astana», but also «Avtodor», which won in a parallel match.
The second game of the VTB United League season, our guys will also play away. On Sunday, October 10, they will be visiting Nizhny Novgorod.
Detailed information about the tournament, tournament tables, schedule and match results are published in the Tournaments