The first finalist for the Euroleague title is none other than Benetton Treviso! In an incredible tale of two halves, Benetton beat Italian rival Montepaschi Siena 62-65 to make the Euroleague final for the second time in 11 years. Benetton lost all of a 19-point first-half lead when it was held to just two field goals in more than 10 minutes of the second. Down 6 points going into the final 3 minutes, however, Benetton revived. Massimo Bulleri was the hero, scoring Benetton's last 7 points. His three-pointer with 37 seconds left took back the lead, and his free throws with 7 seconds left sealed it. Jorge Garbajosa led the winners with 14 points, while Vrbica Stefanov drilled 17 for Montepaschi, whose second-half comeback had Palau Sant Jordi stunned. Benetton will await the results of Friday's second semifinal, between FC Barcelona and CSKA Moscow, to know the name of its title game opponent for Sunday night.
The swings seen in this game are rare to see in normal games, let alone a semifinal. Montepaschi's comeback was one of the biggest in Final Four history, but the fact that it could not be completed is what will be remembered. Benetton's experience certainly seemed to matter in the tense final minutes as a pair of Montepaschi turnovers hurt them badly. But Benetton faced the tougher situation, down 6 points with under 4 minutes left, with poise. Besides his 14 points, 12 of which came at the foul line, Garbajosa had 10 rebounds. Benetton got 12 points each from Bulleri and Denis Marconato, who added 10 rebounds. Alphonso Ford scored 15 more points for Montepaschi, Dusan Vukcevic 14 and Mikalis Kakiouzis 10 with 13 rebounds.
Montepaschi started Stefanov, Ford, Vukcevic, Turkcan and Chiacig. Benetton Started Edney, Langdon, Pittis, Garbajosa and Marconato. The Benetton center was the man in the early going, blocking shots and ripping rebounds as his team jumped out to an 0-8 lead. Trajan Langdon opened the scoring, Pittis knocked down and outside shot, Marconato dunked and his block sent Langdon on a fastbreak that forced a quick Montepaschi timeout. The break didn't help, Marconato came back with another basket for 0-10. By the time Dusan Vukcevic got a fastbreak layup to put Montepaschi on the board, almost 4 minutes had passed. But Benetton's defense was not letting up. The lead kept rising, to 16-4 on another Marconato layup, before Vukcevic landed the game's first three-pointer. That, however, was answered at the other end by Marcelo Nicola, and when Tyus Edney twisted inside for a basket-plus-foul, the Benetton advantage reached 7-22. Mikalis Kakiouzis and Alphonso Ford checked in with their first baskets for Montepaschi, but that was counterbalanced by Mirsad Turkcan's second foul, putting Jorge Garbajosa on the line for the game's biggest lead yet, 11-28, before Aaron Mitchell got a point back at the line to end the quarter 12-28.
The second half was marked from the start by the defenses. That Benetton couldn't score despite two offensive rebounds on the first possession was a clue. Vukcevic drove again to raise his personal point total to 7, half of his team's points on a 14-28 scoreboard, but the other Montepaschi stars were still missing. Marconato resurfaced for another dunk, alone under the basket, and Trajan Langdon landed a shot as the Benetton lead climbed again to 14-32, but points were otherwise hard to come by. Ford muscled in a rebound then got a point at the foul line. Stefanov then flashed to the hoop for a layup that made it 21-34, Montepaschi's most hopeful moment in awhile. But Bulleri erased that with a drive-plus-foul and Garbajosa scored for the highest lead yet, 21-39. In what would prove a clue to the secone half, Stefanov drove for the last basket of the first, leaving the scoreboard at 23-39 in favor of Benetton, who still seemed in complete control.
Defense remained the theme at the start of the third quarter, especially on Montepaschi's part. Down big on the scoreboard, they put a lockdown on Benetton's scorers and started climbing back one hard-won point at a time. An early basket by Edney made it 25-41, but after that, no one on Benetton could seem to find the basket. Meanwhile Kakiouzis and Ford got the line for 3 points, and Mindaugas Zukauskas matched that on a driving layup plus free throw. The lead was down to 10 points, 31-41, and Benetton needed to react. But Montepaschi's defense refused. Ford got the deficit down to double-digits with a baseline drive, and after Garbajosa ended Benetton's dry spell from the line, Stefanov drove to make it 35-43. Montepaschi's rebounding started taking care of the rest, as Zukauskas and Kakiouzis got to the line by pulling down big boards. Meanwhile, Stefanov's pick-and-rolls were a puzzle to Benetton. He drove for a basket to make it 41-43 and complete a 2-16 Montepaschi run. Benetton's only offense was coming from Garbajosa, and then at the foul line. But his next 2 free throws did not stop Montepaschi. Kakiouzis rollicked for a fastbreak layup and Vukcevic repeated the play to tie the game at the end of 30 minutes, 45-45.
Montepaschi completed the long march from 18 down when Ford drilled a three-pointer to open the final quarter. And kept going from there. Another pair of Garbajosa free throws were answered by drives from Stefanov and Ford. When Vukcevic lined up and buried a three-pointer, Montepaschi led 55-47. Benetton looked like Montepaschi had in the first quarter, its stars getting nothing and its shooters literally missing everything. At that point, Benetton had made only 1 of 12 three-pointers for the game. But now, Langdon was left wide open and didn't refuse the luck. Montepaschi still looked good, however, because Stefanov couldn't be stopped. He drove again and added 1 of 2 from the line for 58-52 with less than four minutes left. Garbajosa got 2 back for Benetton at the line, but the key play was the next basket, Nicola taking advantage of a Montepaschi turnover and driving the length of the court for a dunk that made it 56-58. Montepaschi was caught sleeping, and that was a sign. Garbajosa again got to the line for two more to tie it 58-58 up with 2 minutes, 16 seconds left. A whole minute passed in which Turkcan saved two great offensive rebounds that allowed Vukcevic to drive to the hoop for a 60-58 Montepaschi lead. But Bulleri was fouled with 51.6 seconds left and made both free throws. Stefanov copied him, for another Montepaschi lead, 62-60, but the rest of the game belonged to Bulleri. On Benetton's next possession, he surveyed the scene and decided the little room in front of him was enough to launch a triple from the top of the circle. It fell in soft as a feather and Benetton had the lead back. At the other end, Ford backed into the lane, but his pass to Kakiouzis was interrupted by a whistle. Kakiouzis had stepped on the end line while receiving the pass. Montepaschi now had to foul, and despite a near steal by Ford in midcourt, Bulleri went to the line with 7.3 seconds left. He was perfect now, too. Siena would need a three to save its dream, but the shot Kakiouzis launched from more than 3 meters fell short. Benetton was going to the final.
Friday, May 9, 2003