A bitter rivalry between the Spanish League finalists of six months ago ended with a measure of revenge on Wednesday as Unicaja toppled Tau Ceramica from its exclusive perch atop Group B with a strong 71-54 decision in Malaga. Unicaja improved to 4-3 with the victory and will join a tie for third place behind Tau (5-2) and either Panathinaikos or Union Olimpija. A game that started out like war and got progressively offensive was broken open with a 12-2 run in the early fourth quarter by Unicaja. Ademola Okulaja led all scorers with 24 points and all rebounders with 12. His three-pointer opened that decisive run, but it was one of only 2 in 18 attempts by the home team until then. Louis Bullock added 17 points for the winners and Milan Gurovic 10. Tau, playing without injured top scorer Andres Nocioni, got 13 points from Jerome Allen and 10 each from Rashard Griffith and Leandro Palladino, but a 36-27 disadvantage on the boards hurt the visitors.
With Nocioni in jeans on the sideline, the two teams settled down to defense so quickly and comfortably that there were almost as many blocked shots as baskets in the first quarter, and surely as many bodies on the floor. Unfortunately, there was also an equal amount of open three-pointers missed, mostly by Tau. There were points, too, but they came slowly, with Tau ahead 5-7 on two baskets by Luis Scola before he started collecting fouls. And then Okulaja followed with four free throws to tie it 9-9. Indeed, for the better part of the last 5 minutes of the quarter, neither team scored if not on a foul shot. That ended when Okulaja got free for a layup, and at the other end, Allen liked the idea enough to do it himself. The quarter finished, appropriately enough, with an 11-11 tie, but the defenses perhaps were starting to lose their grip on the proceedings. Okulaja had 8 of Unicaja's points then and 3 of its 5 offensive rebounds.
The second quarter still looked as much like pinball as basktball, but Allen's three-pointer to start things off put Tau up 11-14. It took some time for Bullock to find the basket, but an open-court steal and layup got him going. After Stephane Risacher gave Unicaja the lead back with free throws, Bullock made a spectacular inside basket to cap a 6-0 Unicaja run to a 17-14 home advantage. Tau looked inside and got baskets from Hanno Mottola and Rashard Griffith, but Bullock would blow past Juan Manuel Calderon to the basket for a 19-19 tie. Allen liked the ide and added the free throw at the other end for Tau, which then got 2 Mottola foul shots to post its biggest lead at 24-19. A shooter was needed by Unicaja and Milan Gurovic was happy to oblige. He hit one in traffic from the top of the lane, then set up in the corner for a crosscourt pass and a clean three-plus-free throw. His four-point play tied it up again, 25-25. Allen and Carlos Cabezas traded shots in the final seconds to put the scoreboard where it was from the beginning, all tied up at 27-27.
Tau again took the iniciative after intermission, bolting ahead 31-36 with 5 points from Mottola and driving hook by Leandro Palladino. That was the 25th minute already, but the last half of the quarter would be a long one for the visitors. Baskets remained few and far between, but Unicaja now got three in a row by Bullock, Chuck Kornegay and Moustapha Sonko, whose jumper tied the score 37-37 with under 3 minutes left. Unicaja coach Bozidar Maljkovic had called for a zone defense and though it got decent shots, Tau was going to finish the quarter without another basket. Meanwhile, Gurovic lifted up and sank a jumper, and then Okulaja fed Kornegay for a dunk to finish a 10-1 run that gave Unicaja a 41-37 lead going into the final quarter.
Scola, having sat almost 20 minutes with fouls, climbed off the bench and beat Unicaja's zone for the first basket of the fourth quarter. The worst seemed over for Tau, but that was only wishful thinking. The Okulaja-Kornegay conection struck again, and though Scola did the same with Mottola to hold the deficit at 43-41, Tau would get no closer tonight. Okulaja chose that moment for what was just Unicaja's second three-pointer in 18 tries, but it was the boost that mattered. Next, Sonko took over with 5 straight points, drawing Scola's fourth foul and putting Unicaja up 51-43. Okulaja took back the ball, drew Scola's fifth and sank 4 consecutive free throws to put the lead into double digits, 55-43, with under 5 minutes remaining. Tau was not coming back now. The fans who packed the house in Malaga had some measure of revenge for their loss to Tau in the Spanish League finals last year. Then Bullock finished it with a three on the buzzer, just to finish the party correctly.
Wednesday, December 4, 2002