Malta made an important step towards their ambitions for FIBA Small Countries Games gold with a 73-71 win against Azerbaijan on Tuesday.
It was a fight between two sides tipped as favourites but Malta came out on top with a fourth-quarter surge.
Malta’s Samuel Deguara led the game’s scoring with 28 points, while David Bugeja scored 18, and Nathan Xuereb added 12 in an impressive performance for the Gzira Athleta guard.
As expected, Jordan Davis led the Azeri scoring with 22 points, while Orhan Haciyeva added 18, Amil Hamzayev scored 13, and Zahur Pashayev rounded the double-digit scorers with 11.
Coach Alan Walls’ clan started off with Xuereb, Bugeja, Aaron Falzon, Tevin Falzon, and Deguara on court. However, Aaron Falzon suffered an early calf strain, ruling him out of the rest of the game.
The Azeris took the tip but Malta opened the scoring with an Aaron Falzon three-ball before bowing out of the game. Deguara added another as defensive prowess kept Azerbaijan away from the hoop.
Malta opened a seven-point gap with three mins gone before Nelson Kahler made it nine, and Deguara made it a double-digit lead in a dominant opening for the game.
The Azeris opened their scoring with a Davis three-ball after five minutes. However, Malta recovered through Deguara yet again.
Azerbaijan’s threat had definitely been Davis before the game, but it was Malta’s team defence and grit that was most clear as Malta led by 11 with two mins to go in the first quarter.
After a momentary lapse at the beginning of the second quarter, a Kahler block on Davis inspired Malta to go on the offensive and Xuereb made it 19-8 for Malta.
With half of the quarter approaching, Deguara was instrumental to block and score, putting Malta further ahead by 13.
Matthew Scerri scored his first national team point when he made one of two from the line but Azerbaijan responded with two long-distance makes from Haciyeva.
Kahler put the Azeris back into their place with a dunk as Malta led by seven but Hamzayev brought it to within three before the break.
Davis opened the second half scoring but a Deguara dunk cancelled it out. However, Haciyeva equalised for the Azeris with a three to level the score for the first time in the game since tip-off.
Bugeja and Hamzayev traded three-balls before another Azeri three gave them their first lead. Malta, however, did not lie down and scored a three of their own through Xuereb for 38-36.
Azerbaijan found their shot, making six consecutive three-balls but with Malta now six points under, a Bugeja drive led to an and-one, bringing the score to within one.
Shots from Davis, Hamzayev, and Haciyeva reopened the gap but with four minutes to go, Bugeja fought through contact to stop the run and Deguara added an and-one play to bring it back to three.
A free throw and post-shot by an unstoppable Deguara made the score level as Malta regained its composure in defence to set up a fiery finale. If the final seconds weren’t tense enough, Bugeja nailed a three but Davis hit one too to tie the game at 69-a-piece.
Malta took the most important lead of the game when Bugeja made one from two from the line but Deguara grabbed the board and made it a three-point lead with seven seconds to go.
In the bonus, Davis hit two from the line to make it just a point differential. Intentionally fouling, Xuereb hit one of two while Davis missed both to send Maltese fans into ecstasy with the final buzzer.
Malta: D. Bugeja 18; S. Deguara 28; T. Falzon; N. Kahler 8; N. Xuereb 12; M. Brincat; A. Falzon 3; A. Felice Pace; I. Felice Pace; M. Scerri 1; K. Xuereb 3; J. Zammit.
Azerbaijan: J. Davis 22; O. Haciyeva 18; A. Hajiyev; Z. Pashayev 11; U. Turgut 2; J. Akbarov; A. Hamzayev 13; A. Mammadov; E. Poladkhanli 5; E. Shirazadov; B. Taser.
Previous game: San Marino vs Gibraltar 61-47