Play-Off Qualifiers preview: AEK v Juventus Utena
ATHENS (Basketball Champions League) - Juventus Utena are 40 minutes away from celebrating one of the club's biggest achievements - passage to the Basketball Champions League Round of 16.
But to advance in the competition, the Lithuanian club will first have to make a long journey to the south of Greece and the City of the Violet Crown and then battle like never before to hit back from a one-point first-leg deficit against AEK.
Thanks to what can only be described as a gritty display by Jamar Diggs, Juventus do have a fighting chance. Diggs had his best game of the season in the first clash with AEK, pouring in 18 points and dishing out 8 assists on offense while swatting a couple of shots and coming up with two steals on defense.
His third 3-pointer, made with a hand in his face and at the end of the game, gave Juventus some momentum and self-belief before the trip to Athens.
Every point in a home-and-away tie matters but Diggs didn't feel like celebrating his late 3-ball that trimmed the deficit to a single point. He kept his cool.
"It was a good game," he said. "We kind of played bad, good - up and down. I think we can play better, but hopefully we're going to learn from our mistakes and get a win in Athens.
"They're a great team. I think it's going to be a good battle there in Athens."
Vytautas Sulkis was another of the star performers for Juventus. He finished with 17 points.
Juventus coach Antanas Sireika won't be nervous ahead of the second leg. He's seen it all before and will, rest assured, have his players prepared. The veteran tactician long ago made his mark in Lithuania when he coached the national team to EuroBasket 2003 glory in Sweden.
He's convinced that his players can contend in the second leg and get a win.
"I believe," he said. "I trust in my team. I think we can play better."
Sireika talks to his trusted playmaker, Diggs
Juventus, if you include the qualification game they won at FC Porto on 27 September, prevailed in their first four away games in the Basketball Champions League. However, in their last four games away from home, Juventus have fallen.
They did throw a big scare, however, into Sidigas Avellino on 25 January before losing 74-64. The score did not reflect how close the contest had been with Juventus having led early in the fourth quarter.
AEK have one of the most talented teams in the Basketball Champions League and they look to have helped themselves over the weekend when signing Australia international Brad Newley for the remainder of the season.
Newley, who once played in Lithuania with Lietuvas Rytas and then spent more than three seasons in Spain with Valencia and Gran Canaria, was a surprise cut from the Boomers' squad for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He just played in Australia's NBL and was available for the second half of the season in Europe.
Sydney 🛫Doha 🛫Athens— Brad Newley (@BradNewley) February 14, 2017
Jawad Williams, who played a lot of minutes this season for AEK, including almost 24 against Juventus, has left the club and joined Reggio Emilia in Italy.
In the first meeting between the sides, Dusan Sakota was outstanding. The sweet-shooting forward his five of his 8 attempts from the floor, including 2 of 4 from the arc, and scored 13 points.
He also came up with an incredible 3-point play with 12.3 seconds left, making a shot while falling down before sinking the free-throw.
With the win at Juventus, AEK maintained their good form in Europe. They will go into the second leg seeking a fifth consecutive victory in the Basketball Champions League.
The winner of this tie will square off against AS Monaco in the Round of 16.