Zalgiris virtually put one foot in the Top 16 and held onto its piece of first place in Group A by turning back visiting AEK 87-70 at home in Kaunas, Lithuania on Thursday. Zalgiris led solidly throughout the game but had to be wary of a comebck as AEK poured in 51 points in the second half. Zalgiris improved to 7-3 and will continue to share first place in Group A with Tau Ceramica. AEK fell to 3-7 and a sixth-place tie with Strasbourg. Reggie Freeman took over early and finished with 20 points to lead Zalgiris. Paulius Jankunas was next with 18, while Darjus Lavrinovic scored all his 14 after halftime. Tanoka Beard posted a double-double of 12 points and 13 rebounds for the winners. AEK got 22 points from Lionel Chalmers, 16 from Michalis Pelekanos and 11 from Slaven Rimac, but couldn't overcome low-percentage shooting from the floor all night.
Freeman started the scoring with a three-point shot for Zalgiris, which Rimac answered with a jumper on the next possesion. AEK flirted with shots from the arc but found nothing, while Simonas Serapinas drove for a dunk and stepped outside for a triple from right wing to push the hosts ahead 9-4. Michalis Pelekanos made his first basket and rejected a shot by Freeman, but the Zalgiris ace took revenge soon with a basket-plus-free throw to boost Zalgiris's lead to 12-6. Coppenrath, the hero of AEK's win over Zalgiris in Athens, scored his first points now, but Zalgiris responded quickly as Ed Cota fed Tanoka Beard for an easy basket before Rimac cut the difference to 15-10 with free throws to end the first quarter.
More than 2 minutes of the second quarter went by without any points, until Paulius Jankunas busted out for back-to-back three-point plays and Jonas Maciulis capped an 8-0 run for Zalgiris with a dunk. AEK couldn't get any rhythm until Coppenrath scored at the line after 4 minutes in the second quarter. Zalgiris continued hot on the offensive end as Maciulis converted an inbound assist by Cota. Pelekanos stepped up with a jumper and bomb from behind the arc for AEK, while Coppenrath joined him with layup that cut the difference single digits, 28-19. Zalgiris turned again to Freeman as the first scoring option from the outside, and he responded with another triple. AEK missed some open shots and Cota capitalized by tapping in the half's last basket to keep Zalgiris in front, 33-19.
A difficult jumper by Beard opened the second half, and despite a triple in response by Rimac, Darjus Lavrinovic added back-to-back baskets to put Zalgiris ahead even more, 42-26. Nonetheless, the AEK offense seemed fresh and aggresive with Chalmers drving for a basket and Coppenrath hitting a free throw. After going scoreless until halftime, Lavrinovic continued to revive, scoring now from under the basket. Cota penetrated for nice shot but AEK emphasized defense and forced Zalgiris into turnovers while Chalmers pulled off a five-point possesion and added a coast-to-coast dunk to keep vistors alive at 51-43 after 30 minutes.
Jankunas shined for Zalgiris early in the final quarter, hitting back-to-back baskets for breathing room at 55-43. Coppenrath and Lavrinovic traded baskets inside, then Jankunas and Rimac did the same. When Lavrinovic hit a triple to make it 62-49, Chalmers calmly matched that to bring the difference back down to 10 points with 5 minutes to go. The big play of the quarter came from the big player of the first half, Freeman, who drilled a triple, got fouled and hit the free throw for a back-breaking four-point play. When V idas Ginevicius hit from the arc next and Lavrinovic slammed a flashy dunk, the hosts had a 9-2 run and a 71-54 lead. But AEK didn't give up. Instead, the guests answered with 7-0 run behind Pelekanos and Giannis Kalampokis. But then Freeman fed Cota for a jumper and Beard added free throws. Chalmers nailed his third triple, but it was way too late for comeback as Jankunas and Beard protected the lead down the stretch to keep Zalgiris sharing the top spot in Group A.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
Antanas Pakula, Kaunas