For three-fourths of last night's Euroleague game between Fenerbahce and Maccabi Tel Aviv, Simone Pianigiani's game plan worked to perfection.
The Turkish powerhouse matched Tel Aviv's intensity, challenged the yellow-and-blue squad, and kept within striking range upon entering the final frame trailing by five, 53-48. Coming off an embarrassing domestic loss to Anadolu Efes and dropping its first pair of Top 16 games, Fenerbahce strolled into a hostile Nokia Arena and played smart basketball.
Mike Batiste (again) showed flashes of the dominant center he used to be, Bo McCalebb burned the hardwood with wowing penetrations and Bojan Bogdanovic banked a sick half-court halftime buzzer-beater. Fenerbahce was on a roll.
Yet, this was all a short lived memory for the visiting Turks.
As the countdown for the fourth quarter began, Pianigiani's men choked and Maccabi stormed ahead behind an exciting 38-point quarter, trashing its opponent 91-73 en route to clinching its first Top 16 victory. Fenerbahce still remains winless (3-0).
"We had Maccabi right where we wanted them. The guys were playing well, our defense was working and the players stuck to the game plan. Trailing by just three baskets (after three quarters) put us in a position we were happy with," Fenerbahce's Italian coach Simone Pianigiani said after blowing a hard fought contest in Tel Aviv.
After the game, a frustrated Pianigiani was extremely animated in the visitors' locker. The Italian coach's banging against the door (his hand? coaching board?) and yelling in both English and a language I couldn't pick up (Italian perhaps?) were heard well beyond the underground halls of Nokia's dressing rooms and media center.
Then, an urgent Turkish gathering of Fenerbahce officials and coaching staff took place in Maccabi's weight room. It included Pianigiani and his three assistants Luca Dalmonte, Ertugrul Erdogan and Erdem Can, team manager Serdar Apaydın, and executive general manager Kemal Dincer.
"We probably broke the Euroleague Top 16 record for allowing most points in the game's final period," Pianigiani said after Fenerbahce's defense has given up a combined 101 fourth-quarter points over its last three games (29 vs. Siena, 34 vs. Anadolu Efes, and 38 vs. Maccabi).
"We're experiencing some kind of mental problem," he claimed. Adding, "what happened to us in the fourth-quarter wasn't coincidental. The players' body language completely shut down thinking the game was over when it wasn't. It's happened to us against Anadolu Efes a few days ago and it occurred a week ago during the loss to Siena."
Pianigiani noted that a number of unfortunate early season injuries have dug a chemistry hole for Fenerbahce, yet he emphasized that his team had made certain to arrive healthy and prepared for the Top 16 competition.
When asked if Fenerbahce can regroup and overcome its January slump Pianigiani said, "It may seem likes it’s over for us but there are still eleven more games to be played. We have a series of four consecutive Turkish and Euroleague home games where we can collect a couple of wins and feel good. We need to stay together and find a way to play all 40-minutes. When we learn how to do that, we will be a top European team."
During Pianigiani's press conference, I asked him to share what it was he barked at his players? He smiled and said, "If I wanted you to know what I told to my players in the locker room I would have opened the door let you in."
**According to the Euroleague's post game media policy, journalists are entitled 15-minutes of interviewing inside teams' lockers. However, after waiting outside Fenerbahce's locker for over half an hour, I requested a few words with visiting Australian center David Anderson but was shut down by Apaydın, who banned his entire roster from talking.