(16-12, 12-15, 11-8, 20-17)
Malta secured a place in this year’s FIBA Small Countries Games final after they beat Azerbaijan for a second time 59-52 at the Ta’ Qali pavilion on Saturday.
It was a tense, yet low-scoring contest between two sides with big ambitions for the tournament. The Azeris will head to the third-place game, while Malta continues to fight for gold on Sunday.
As in all the previous games, Sam Deguara led the game in scoring with 18 points, Tevin Falzon added 16, and Nelson Kahler ended another productive afternoon with 14. For Azerbaijan, Orhan Haciyeva led with 17 points, while Zaur Pashayev added 16.
Malta were unchanged while the Azeris were without leading scorer Jordan Davis who was out nursing a back injury.
Azerbaijan took the tip and the first shot but it was Deguara with the first basket three minutes in. He doubled the score before Azerbaijan got their opener through 44.
Both sides went back and forth with Malta running a four-point gap before Kurt Xuereb hit the game’s first three-pointer.
Tevin Falzon hit another three after a no-look assist from Bugeja to put the margin up by six. Minutes later, the game saw the introduction of Depiro’s Miguel Brincat, making his senior debut, with a minute and a half to go in the first quarter.
The Azeris managed just two more baskets before the end of the quarter with Malta still up by four.
Azerbaijan got their first three through Pashayev at the opening of the second quarter and despite numerous missed shots at both ends, the Azeris managed to bring the game to within two points with a three pointer from Haciyeva halfway through the second quarter, tying the game with a Pashayev make.
Malta on the other hand could not penetrate the paint, with Deguara doubled on every play.
Azerbaiajn took the first lead with a three-ball from Pashayev but Falzon kept the game close with a run to the rim.
Silly turnovers were proving costly for Malta but good defence and two Kahler layups gave the lead back to Malta with 13 seconds to go in the first half.
Falzon opened the second half scoring with a smooth finish before Kahler added another to open a five-point margin. At the other end, Deguara swatted away offensive drives by Poladkhanli.
Azerbaijan shot their way to within four with two threes but Malta held on to end the quarter four points ahead.
The fourth quarter was to be a battle of wits culminating what was the lowest scoring game for both sides so far this tournament. Malta led by just a point with the last five minutes before the Azeris drew level with 3.30 to go.
On defence, they crowded the area to close down the paint but a three-pointer from Falzon and a fastbreak score by Nathan Xuereb reopened a five-point margin.
With under a minute remaining, tensions were at an all-time high but Falzon calmed the tempo with two freethrows as Malta led by seven in the final seconds.
The Azeris attempted to send the game to overtime but they missed three consecutive shots under pressure until the final buzzer as Malta reached the final.