Novi Sad savor sweetest triumph in Utsunomiya
UTSUNOMIYA (Japan) – After a tough Day 1 of the Utsunomiya Final, the champs were on the ropes. Down and almost out.
The memories from a year ago when they stormed through the FIBA 3x3 World Tour undefeated seemed like a lifetime ago.
Novi Sad's domination of 3x3 was slipping away after they had been thrashed by American hotshot Princeton in the opener and then they only barely qualified for the quarter-finals after squeezing past Zemun in overtime.
It was a dispiriting performance from the world No.1 who clearly no longer intimidated teams.
But never underestimate the heart of a champion. Realizing their title hopes were spiraling, Novi Sad needed a spark and the players got together before Day 2 for a pep talk. It was a last ditch effort to get back on track.
"We looked really bad on Day 1. We had low level energy," Marko Savic said. "We needed to have more energy on Day Two. And we talked about it."
The rallying cry worked wonders. An inspired Novi Sad easy beat in-form Sakiai Gulbele (LTU)in the quarters and the team's swagger returned.
"After the quarters, I looked at the three other guys and I knew we were going to the end," Savic said.
Savic knew Novi Sad had rediscovered their identity. The switch had been flicked. And the increasingly confident Serbs then edged out Riga Ghetto (LAT) – who won the most Masters titles this season - in the semis and exacted revenge over Princeton in the final to repeat as champions.
It was incredibly their fourth Final's victory in eight seasons but this had to be their most satisfying triumph. Everyone had been out for their blood.
After last year's (32-0) total domination - where they were 3x3's Harlem Globetrotters - a more competitive and loaded field were out for revenge. A slew of teams improved markedly and new powers emerged.
"We raised the bar very high. Everyone expected us just to win," Dusan Bulut said.
They fell short in five straight Masters, including three times being bounced at the quarter-finals stage.
Novi Sad had lost their way and plenty of opponents enjoyed their downfall. "The guys from the other teams told us 'we are going to beat you'," Savic said. "We had less energy than our opponents."
Dejan Majstorovic aka 'the Maestro' could not quite believe his team's sudden struggles after Mexico City. "After that, I thought we were going to win five or six Masters," he said.
"We played very bad after Mexico City. We lost motivation. Every team is better this year. We had changes to our defense and maybe we had problems with that."
After struggling at the Nanjing Masters in October, Novi Sad looked vulnerable heading into 3x3's showpiece finale and they started slowly in Utsunomiya. Backs against the wall, Novi Sad summoned their best under pressure and the rest is history.
After a spectacular Day 2, when they were in vintage form, Novi Sad kept their crown and remain on 3x3's throne. They are still the kings of the 10-minute game.
"When it matters the most we won," Bulut said.
Maybe the most determined player was big fella Tamas Ivosev, who bulldozed opponents en route to the MVP in Utsunomiya.
"It was important we stayed together. We showed them (the critics)," he said.
Novi Sad sure proved the haters wrong in the sweetest triumph for 3x3's greatest team.