“Los Huevos” Keenan Evans leads Zalgiris to tough win over Valencia

Jan 10, 2024 | Holyland Hoops

“I will answer you with one Spanish expression, “Los Huevos”.

That’s how the ever so colorful Zalgiris head coach Andrea Trinchieri would answer The Sports Rabbi’s question about the game MVP Keenan Evans who nailed two huge triples down the stretch to take the tight back and forth win over Valencia. With 24 points and a half dozen 3-pointers to lead the Lithuanians, Evans looks to be the player that I had always thought he could be at the highest levels of Europe when he played for a season with Maccabi Tel Aviv. However, now in his second year with Zalgiris, the Richardson, Texas native looks to have found a home and a grove to take his game to the next level.

I circled this matchup of former Maccabi Tel Aviv guards now playing their trades elsewhere as a potential batnburner of a game and I was not disappointed. Without any Euroleague games in Israel due to the war, The Sports Rabbi went on tour to see how some of the other continental greats are faring this season with the first stop being in Valencia, a city that I have visited a number of times with each one producing an unforgettable evening of basketball.

Brandon Davies – Photo Credit: Miguel Angel Polo

Traveling to Spain usually means some pretty good basketball whether it’s the Euroleague with four teams featuring in the competition or the local domestic ACB League that has plenty of talented teams from top to bottom. It doesn’t matter of its Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia or Baskonia one will get the the royal hoops treatment and with no continental competitions in Israel for the near future due to the war, what better place to get one’s European hoops fix.

So many of the players who feature in Spain have either played in the NBA for a significant amount of time, or have honed their trade to play at the highest of levels while some worked on their craft in Israel and with Maccabi Tel Aviv. In fact was is true is that all of the 18 Euroleague teams boast top level talent from A to Z and that was certainly the case when Zalgiris visited Valencia.

The Spanish team’s lead point guard Chris Jones got his first taste of Euroleague action with Maccabi Tel Aviv back during the 2020/21 season under head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos. After one campaign with the yellow-and-blue, Jones headed to Villeurbanne in France and then moved to Valencia where he is now in his second season and a fan favorite.

Chris Jones – Photo Credit: Miguel Angel Polo

Jones started off the game with a nice one handed off balanced floater and added a triple soon thereafter for the hosts, but another former Maccabi man in guard Keenan Evans was having none of that and matched him shot for shot in all old fashioned shootout.

Evans who played in Israel for a pair of seasons, the first with Hapoel Haifa when he was robbed of the league’s MVP award and went head to head with Jones on numerous occasions and then replacing the aforementioned Jones with the yellow-and-blue the following season. While no yet knew how the game was going to play out at this point, it was clear that Evans was going to be a central figure no matter what.

When Jones exited the floor, Stefan Jovic entered as the guard got to work with a pair of buckets. The name is a familiar one to Maccabi fans as the Serbian had been rumored to join the Israeli club time and time again, however, injuries always seemed to get in the way and the questions of what might have been have always surrounded his career. Another player who would have always looked good in yellow-and-blue in one Rolands Smits carved up Alex Mumbru’s team to give the Lithuanians a 27-21 lead after ten minutes of play.

Alex Mumbru – Photo Credit: Miguel Angel Polo

The 44-year old Mumbru was a classic Spanish hoopster having won numerous medals for his country including a gold at the 2006 World Cup and the 2009 European Championships. Add to that his lengthy tenure at Bilbao and stops with Real Madrid and Badalona and there’s no question that the small forward had the goods to now turn his career into one on the bench.

With that in mind, Mumbru also believes in classic Spanish ball. He makes sure that as many players as possible get into the game early and often while moving the ball around to get those players touches and a feel for the game not knowing when later on he will need to call upon one of them in crunch time. The players came into the game in the first quarter while the other two entered in the second while ten scored by halftime.

Young up and coming Jamie Pradilla did as his coach wanted and put in points while veteran guard Kevin Pangos a former Zalgiris star who just moved to Valencia after a falling out with Milano came on to provide some calm and presence along with smart passing including a terrific zinger to the corner that Jones knocked down. With some more back and forth play it was ten year Euroleague man Edgaras Ulanovos who sent Andrea Trinchieri’s team into halftime holding onto a 48-42 advantage to the delight of the over 100 traveling fans.

Brandon Davies – Photo Credit: Miguel Angel Polo

Mumbru must have given his charges white the halftime talk because Valencia came out like a house on fire to begin the second half as bigs Brandon Davies and Damien Inglis did damage down low. Both have travelled around Europe with the former having years worth of Euroleague experience as the duo pulled the hosts right to Zalgiris’s front door.

Opening that door and taking the lead came from a Pangos swish triple and a driving Jones and a pair of jumpers by an active Davies who made good after getting beat under the bucket as Valencia went into the final frame up by a pair, 64-62.

Justin Anderson a veteran of over 250 NBA games across a half a dozen teams signed a short term contract with the club after having started the season with Rio Breogan in Spain. Anderson hadn’t played a lick in the second half until he came on to begin the 4th quarter and he got it off with a bang from the midrange and then going hard to the hoop as it seemed that no rust was to be found despite having not played since the first half.

Keenan Evans – Photo Credit: Miguel Angel Polo

But Evans was going to have none of that with a triple, a pair of free throws and then a wonderful dish out to the comer where Brady Manek was waiting to knock down a 3-pointer of his own to give Zalgiris a 72-68 lead midway through the frame.

Davies and Smits went after one another, trash talking to their hearts delight as the former Barcelona teammates couldn’t get enough of each other as time ticked off the clock and that’s when things got really interesting.

Semi Ojeleye who had not featured much took a brilliant Davies pass and drained a comer 3-ball, then went hard to the basket to draw a foul and put in a pair from the charity stripe which was followed up by a flagrant by Smits on the Nigerian.

But all that was for naught as Evans out of nowhere drilled home yet another triple and followed that up with a second in a row from downtown right over Jones’s outstretched arms. But if you think that was it, well things would take yet another turn when Evans was called for a flopping technical foul after a miss that Jones put in to cut the Zalgiris lead to just 80-79 with 22.3 seconds left in the game.

Brday Manek – Photo Credit: Miguel Angel Polo

With the home defense swarming, somehow Manek, the former Oklahoma Sooner and North Carolina Tar Heel was left wide open at the top of the key and took the ball into a wide open lane that looked like a parted Red Sea to lay it in and sew up the victory.

But this game was really all Keenan Evans dropping 24 points going 6/9 from deep with 5 assists as he was just stellar down the stretch by having the guts to take the bull by the horns and take the shots that some others just may not as his coach Andrea Trinchieri so elegantly said after the game.

“I will answer you with one Spanish expression, “Los Huevos”. My job is to maximize the talent of my players and I believe that he has great personality and his teammates know he can take these shots, so nobody was surprised. To make the shots you need “Huevos” and you need the support of your teammates, because if you take these shots which are difficult shots. If some of your teammates would say why are you taking them you do not have enough basketball love to knock down those shots.

Evans himself was happy that he has the trust of his teammates to be able to help his team when the contest gets into money time, “My teammates had confidence in me to send me to handle the ball in those situations. We came out with a victory, had some tough defensive plays but we got the win.“

Keenan Evans – Photo Credit: Miguel Angel Polo

Edgaras Ulanovas added his thoughts about the guard, “We know that Keenan [Evans] has the responsibility to make decisions at the end of the game. He scored some great threes but also a lot of credit to our guys for the job on defensive rebounds at the end of the fourth quarter.”

Valencia coach Alex Mumbru was certainly not content with the result and knows that a thruway date at Real Madrid will no doing be a difficult one after a solid strait to the season.

“We played badly in the first quarter and played no defense,” the bench boss began. “We are not the team we used to be in the that period, the first half was a gift for Zalgiris. We played better after halftime and we came back but we didn’t take the rebounds and Evans made those 3-pointers in the key moments and that is what killed the game.”

Andrea Trinchieri – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

It’s clear that Trinchieri has made his mark despite not having really any time to practice with the team due to game after game after game but as Evans commented it’s all about winning, “As for Andrea, we learn from him more each day and he is instilling confidence. The rumors are true, he’s a tough coach but it’s all love. Just take the coaching, he wants to win just like us.”

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