In what will go down as another miraculous finish to the Top 16, Maccabi made it to the Final Four in Tel Aviv with an unbelievable 107-99 overtime victory at home against Zalgiris on Thursday. The mood of two nations turned on a Derrick Sharp three-pointer that beat the buzzer in regulation time and allowed Maccabi to tie 94-94 and reach the extra five-minute period. There, Maccabi took a quick lead and wouldn't let it go until the 10,000-strong sea of yellow in the stands at Nokia Arena could start making their Final Four plans a reality. It was a night of legendary performances, with Sarunas Jasikevicius leading Maccabi with 37 points in just 29 minutes. Nikola Vujcic added 18 for the winners, David Bluthenthal 17 and Anthony Parker 12. The man who meant more to his team than perhaps any other in the competition, Arvydas Sabonis, finished with 29 points and 9 rebounds for Zalgiris. Ed Cota and Ainars Bagatskis added 20 each and Tanoka Beard 11.
Zalgiris controlled the tip and struck first when Sabonis nailed an open three-pointer. The game got off to a physical start, with each team committing 4 fouls in the first 4 minutes. Jasikevicius got hot early, scoring 8 of Maccabi's first 9 points without a miss in action. Oddly enough, his only miss came at the free throw line, ending his streak of 22 straight foul shots made in the Top 16. Zalgiris used the outside shot as its prime weapon until Sabonis scored inside on a hook shot to put the visitors ahead 10-14. But Jasikevicius was a man on a mission. He sandwiched a pair of three-pointers around a Vujcic baby hook, then added 2 points from the line for a 10-0 run that turned the game around for Maccabi. Even though Sabonis stopped the run with a tip-in, he couldn't help his team's poor shooting. Zalgiris missed 6 of 7 shots in a stretch by the time Bluthenthal's three-pointer put Maccabi up 24-16. Bagatkis finally scored from downtown for Zalgiris, but Jasikevicius hit a jumper at the buzzer to keep Tel Aviv ahead 30-22 after 10 minutes. "Saras" already had 18 points for Maccabi.
Bluthenthal scored to put the Maccabi up 10 points to start the second period, but that's when Cota went to work, drawing fouls from Sharp and Jasikevicius and hitting all 4 of his chances at the line to trim the deficit. Suddenly, Maccabi went cold and Bagatskis & Co. found their touch to make it 33-28. Just when Maccabi showed signs of a recovery, Jasikevicius was called for his third foul and was forced to take a seat on the bench. Without its point guard, the Maccabi attack looked lost. Dainius Salenga threw down a fastbreak dunk to make it 39-36. Anthony Parker took over the ball-handling duties for Tel Aviv, and was able to keep Maccabi in front with a pair of jumpers. Sabonis, who scored the last 5 points for Zalgiris, capped the half with a hook to keep the visitors within 46-43.
Both teams went inside to start the second half. Zalgiris lined up Sabonis together with Beard, while Maccabi used Deon Thomas instead of Maceo Baston alongside Vujcic. Beard went to work first, hauling in an offensive board and drawing a foul from Thomas, and then Cota found Sabonis wide open underneath for an easy dunk to tie at 46-46. After Jasikevicius missed Maccabi's sixth straight shot to start the quarter, Cota beat the 24-second clock with a three-pointer to put Zalgiris up 48-49. Jasikevicius broke Maccabi's drought with a jump shot, but picked up his fourth foul on the next trip downcourt. Seconds after Parker fed Vujcic underneath to knot the score at 52-52 and get the crowd back involved, Sabonis drilled 2 three-pointers and blocked Baston, who had replaced Thomas. Zalgiris had reclaimed the momentum. Cota made a pair of foul shots to put Kaunas ahead 54-61. Bluthenthal scored inside for Maccabi, but Sabonis again answered. The Lithuanian legend grabbed Cota's miss over Vujcic, spun around and found Bagatskis for an open three that made it 64-56. Jasikevicius ended the period with a pair of free throws and Maccabi staring at a 54-68 lead for Zalgiris.
Maccabi came out running in the fourth. First, Jasikevicius scored from the line, then Parker stripped Cota and finished with a one-handed jam, and finally Bluthenthal tipped in a Parker miss to tie 64-64 as Nokia Arena erupted. The shell-shocked Lithuanians turned to Sabonis, who hit his fourth triple of the evening, but Maccabi's Lithuanian, Jasikevicius, nailed one as well on the next play. Sabonis clogged the middle on defense, and followed up another miss for a tip-in that put his club back up 67-71. Sabonis was whistled for two quick fouls, and Jasikevicius's rebound basket closed the gap to 73-74. Bagatskis made a three from the corner, and after Salenga matched Parker's pair from the line, Bagatskis hit another jumper to make it 75-81 and force a Maccabi timeout. Vujcic converted a three-point play after the stop, but Bluthenthal was forced to stop Sabonis with a foul on the other side. 'Sabas' made both. Parker drew Mindaugas Timinskas's fifth foul at the two-minute mark, but missed the first of 2 free throws. Cota travelled while penetrating, and Bluthenthal got Maccabi back within one with a three-pointer, but this time Bagatskis answered from downtown. Jasikevicius put in 3 free throws with 50 seconds left to close the gap to 85-86, but when Sharp fouled him, Cota kept his side ahead by three. Jasikevicius missed a three for the tie and Parker was called for a foul on the rebound. Bagatskis hit 2 more from the line to set up the Zalgiris win. Cota kept hitting from the line, Saras and Vujcic kept Maccabi within three, and when Jasikevicius committed his fifth foul on Giedrius Gustas with seconds to go, it seemed over. But Gustas missed both, and Sharp hit a desperation three at the buzzer to tie it 94-94.
A stunned Zalgiris missed its first shots and Vujcic scored twice inside to put Maccabi up 98-94 in overtime. Sharp fouled out and was replaced by Yotam Halperin, as Arturas Javtokas made just 1 of 2 from the line. Baston took a Vujcic feed for a dunk, but then Bluthenthal fouled out for Maccabi. Beard made both of his free throws to cut the hosts' advantage to 100-97. After Vujcic missed a three, Zalgiris coughed up the ball up, Halperin went to the line and sank 1 foul shot with 1:31 to go. But Zalgiris couldn't match the points, and missed the next five shots as Baston, Tal Burstein, and Halperin sealed a sensational 107-99 win.
Thursday, April 8, 2004