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News / SKA Minsk qualifies to Final Four, last year's finalists meet in quarter-final
Baltic Handball League
SKA Minsk qualifies to Final Four, last year's finalists meet in quarter-final
Baltic Handball League's final weekend of the regular season delivered as it promised – fascinating matches with some big wins, one-goal victories and surprises as well. SKA Minsk emerged as the biggest winner of the weekend, moving on top of Group A and qualifying directly to the Final Four, to be held in April.
SKA met ZTR Zaporozhye in the final game on Sunday with both teams having 13 points, but Ukrainians with an advantage of winning the previous head-to-head encounter and therefore would have been happy with a draw. It was a nervous and very tight start in Minsk, both teams concentrating on defence.
More than one thousand fans witnessed SKA's win
SKA had the early lead of 3:1, but in 12th minute ZTR went ahead 5:4. Nine minutes later ZTR led 8:7, but this was to be the last time during the match. SKA equalized, Dzmitry Nikulenkau gave the Belarussians the lead and they never looked back. Aliaksei Kishou in goal started to pull off some excellent saves and SKA increased the lead.
Half-time belonged to three-time winners of the BHL by 14:11 and eventually SKA took a clear 31:22 win. Yulyan Hiryk was on target eight times, while Oleksandr Tilte scored seven goals for the visitors. "Our players really wanted to win this match and they were very focused," said Oleg Lebedev, manager of SKA.
"We wanted to qualify directly, as firstly we would like to organize the Final Four in Minsk this year and secondly we would have had problems with match schedule for the quarter-finals. Last two matches against Cocks and ZTR we played on a very good level and it was great pleasure to play at home in front of more than 1000 spectators," added Lebedev.
To make things worse for ZTR, Dragunas Klaipeda took two victories over the weekend and finished on 13 points, level with the Ukrainian team. But as the Lithuanians had won both matches against ZTR, they overtook them in second place, which meant ZTR had dropped from first to third over this final weekend!
Dragunas laid foundations for this overtake on Saturday, when they surprised title-holder Cocks Riihimäki with 26:25 (13:11) win in Viimsi and then beat HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper 33:23 (16:10) the day later. In terms of scoring Dragunas proved their squad depth, as against Cocks four players scored four and against Kehra three players recorded five goals.
Serviti and Cocks set for fascinating quarter-final clash
The other team besides Dragunas, who took two victories over the final weekend, was Serviti Põlva. This meant last year's runner-up finished the regular season with five straight wins, but still missed out by a point to reach the top three. And it means Cocks and Serviti – last year's BHL finalists – will meet eachother in the quarter-finals!
On Saturday, Serviti had to dig deep against domestic competitors of HC Kehra. Estonian champion was trailing at half-time 11:14 and fell four goals behind in the second, but with experienced Eston Varusk in goal and younger generation taking responsibility in attack, Serviti won 24:22 (Alfred Timmo and Stanislav Kholodiuk 5 – Uvis Strazdinš 9).
The day later was less pressure, even if it was the meeting of the 2018 finalists, but both teams knew that most probably they have to play again in quarter-finals. Nevertheless, it was an exciting game of handball, where Serviti eventually defeated Cocks by 26:25 (Kholodiuk 8 – Yury Lukyanchuk 7) due to Tõnis Kase's last minute goal.
"There was clearly more intensity on Saturday, as we still had hopes we can escape Cocks in quarter-finals and played a very good second half against Kehra. On Sunday, we gave more chances for younger players and 18-year-old goalkeeper Christofer Viilop made his BHL debut," explained Serviti's head coach Kalmer Musting.
Sandris Veršakovs: we deserved the first place
In Group B, everything became clear on Saturday or in someway even before, as third-placed HC Tallinn faced major injury worries and could not travel to Lithuania with a full-strength squad. They lost to Granitas-Karys Kaunas 24:30 (Markus Viitkar 10 – Tadas Bučinskas 7) and to VHC Šviesa Tallinn 19:31 (Enrico Anton 5 – Karolis Antanavičius 11).
Šviesa had already secured the place in the quarter-finals on Saturday, when they had to work very hard against the bottom-of-the-table Viljandi HC. The Estonian side had a great first half and led 16:12. Šviesa only managed to go ahead in the 50th minute and won 27:24 (Antanavičius 9 – Volodymyr Maslak 6).
The winner of Group B comes from Latvia, as ZRHK Tenax Dobele secured first place with a derby-win on Saturday. Latvian champions ran away midway through the first half and defeated Celtnieks Riga 32:25 (Nils Mikelsons 6 – Arturs Lazdinš 13).
"Overall I am very happy how we played in the regular season. Just one defeat and one draw and we finished deservedly in first place. Now we have to play ZTR, who we have never met before, so it will be very interesting I guess for both teams. We have a break in Latvian league, waiting for semi-finals, so we can concentrate on BHL," commented Sandris Veršakovs, head coach of Tenax.
So SKA Minsk – winners of BHL in 2013, 2014 and 2015 – goes straight to Final Four, dates of which are 20th and 21st of April. The quarter-final pairings are following: Šviesa – Dragunas, Tenax – ZTR and Cocks – Serviti. The matches will be played home and away in March.
Besides qualifying to quarter-finals for the first time since this stage was added in 2015/16 season, Šviesa can also be happy having regular season top scorer in their ranks. Karolis Antanavičius scored 81 goals and finished clearly ahead of Paulius Šarkauskas (Granitas-Karys) and Vladislav Koshman (Celtnieks), both on 69 goals.
On photo: BHL regular season's top scorer Karolis Antanavičius' 81 goals played a big part in VHC Šviesa Vilnius qualifying to quarter-finals. (Photo: VHC Šviesa).