Few at the start of the season would have bet on a Riyadi-UBA’s clash in the final of the Lebanese Basketball League. Despite UBA consistently improving from year to year, all odds were in favor of another finals clash between archrivals Riyadi and Sagesse. But the script has been altered this season as it nears its conclusion.
Sagesse entered the playoffs with a depleted side after the departure of star center Julian Khazzouh, and they were blown away 4-0 by UBA in the final four, paving the way for an unprecedented final showpiece between the Beirut and Jbeil sides.
The best-of-seven final series will tip off Thursday in Manara, where Riyadi will host Game 1, aiming to record a record-extending 25th title.
At the start of the season, UBA’s ambitions were far more modest than Riyadi’s as the Jbeil side previously had not gone further than semifinals, an achievement they attained last season.
But they will hope to be the fourth team to win the championship in the last 20 years, with Champville’s title triumph in 2012 the only occasion when Sagesse or Riyadi were not champions.
It’s no secret that Riyadi head into Thursday as overwhelming favorites to win the series and the title, with their lineup boasting a group of elite-players and under the tutelage of Slovenian head coach Slobodan Subotic, who could become the first foreign coach to win the league twice in a row. Although Riyadi came under scrutiny for their performance in Game 5 of their final four series against Champville, which they eventually won 4-2, they always showed in the critical times their ability to sacrifice individual tendencies for the sake of the team.
And Riyadi have had a lot of individualism to deal with.
The additions of household names like Fadi al-Khatib, Jeremiah Massey and Elijah Holman have only added firepower alongside Ahmad Ibrahim, Ismael Ahmad, Amir Saoud, Wael Arakji, Ali Mahmoud, Jean Abdelnour and others.
UBA know their matchup against Riyadi is not an ideal one, and they will definitely need to bring in their best performance on each night in order to beat Riyadi who have the ability to rotate on each of the five positions during this seven-game series. But the Jbeil side, led by Serbian successful tactician Nenad Vucinic, will hope to play utilize small details to improve their chances to compete with their opponents. Jay Youngblood remains the focal point of UBA’s offensive game, but they will need more contribution from his teammates, as he is going to be guarded closely by defensive maestro Jean Abdelnour. UBA will be aware that they cannot play an open game against Riyadi, as their opponents field huge attacking potential, while defense will be key for Vucinic’s side to stall Riyadi’s tempo and capitalize on fastbreaks.
It is virtually impossible for any team to win two games in a row against Riyadi as the Beirut side have showed a mental toughness to always rebound from losses. If UBA manage to achieve that monumental goal, then they will be worthy winners, as they will be the first team to do it this season. But that remains a daunting task as Riyadi have history and prestige on their side in this tie.