With an overtime effort that affected several other teams, Union Olimpija made the Top 16 in the last 5 minutes of the season on Thursday by outlasting Cibona VIP at home by 85-81 to finish fourth in Group A after a four-way tiebreaker. After tying with Partizan, AEK and Pau-Orthez, all at 6-8, Olimpija took fourth place for having held the best record in head-to-head games against those teams, 4-2. Cibona, who had already qualified, slipped to 8-6 and a tie with Ulker, but finished second in Group A for having beaten the Turks by +5 in their two games. Vladimer Boisa had a career-high 27 points, including 8 of 8 two-point shots and 3 of 4 triples, to lead Olimpija. Dzenan Rahimic and Marino Bazdaric, the key scorer in overtime, added 13 points apiece, while Roberts Stelmahers contributed 10 for the winners. For Cibona, Slaven Rimac led the way with 22 points and Jurica Golemac chipped in 14.
Sold-out Tivoli Arena in Ljubjana knew that the pressure was on Olimpija's shoulders, because Cibona was already in the Top 16. Olimpija started aggressively on defense, but committed several early fouls as Cibona jumped ahead 3-5 thanks to 5 points by Golemac. Baskets were scarce then as Cibona tried to find Josko Poljak in the paint, while Golemac found the holes in Olimpija's defense. His second triple made it 10-16 and rang alarms for Olimpija. Rahimic answered with his own triple for 15-18, as Boisa blocked Golemac's shot and later scored for a three-point play to tie 22-22. In the last second of the quarter, Rahimic scored his 13th point for a 24-23 Olimpija lead after 10 minutes.
Olimpija's bench came on in the second quarter and launched the hosts to a 29-23 advantage, but Cibona's superiority on the boards limited the damage until 2 free throws by Andrija Zizic could cut the deficit to 31-30. Olimpija was shooting great from the arc, 4 of 6 until then, and Simon Petrov added another triple for a 36-30 home lead that forced a Cibona timeout. The visitors regrouped on defense, but Boisa remained unstoppable in offense, hitting his fifth baskets in as many attempts to maintained a 43-36 Olimpija advantage. In the last plays of the quarter, however, Cibona pulled within 43-40 after Josip Vrankovic's dunk on a fastbreak, and there the score stayed when Petrov's triple at the halftime buzzer missed.
Olimpija felt fortunate to have led despite a 7-16 rebound deficit in the first half, but in the second, Rahimic's good groove passed to Boisa. His second triple and another midrange jumper gave him 20 points and Olimpija the first double-digit lead of the night, 52-42. Cibona called on Zizic to help, but Boisa stayed on fire with another triple to make it 55-42. That was his eighth shot from the floor without a miss in 24 minues, and he had only missed 2 free throws. Even though Cibona got closer at 55-49 in minute 27, but the scoreboard turned again for the hosts at 62-51 after an unsportsmanlike foul called on Vrankovic. A last jumper by Aloysius Anagonye left the Olimpija lead at a solid 12 points, 65-53, after 30 minutes.
Cibona proved no lead was safe as it opened the final quarter with an 0-8 run on Rimac's layup and triples by Josip Sesar and Vrankovic. After Boisa responded for Olimpija, a three-point play by Zizic trimmed the difference further, to 67-64. Anagonye was especially efficient on offensive rebounds as his Olimpija teammates missed several triple. Boisa put back his own miss, too, as Olimpija stayed up at 73-64, but the hosts proved again that no lead was safe in their hands, either. Another 0-7 run capped by a Golemac triple quickly pulled Cibona within 73-71 with under 3 minutes to play. Golemac then missed 2 free throws, but Cibona kept shooting, missing and pulling offensive boards. Finally, 2 free throws by Barisa Krasic tied the game at 73-73 with less than 10 seconds to go and Olimpija missed the last attack to send the game into overtime.
In the extra period, after 4 more minutes of balance, decision time arrived in the last 30 seconds. At 80-78, Marko Maravic missed 2 free throws and fouled out in the following play. Then, after Zizic also missed 2 foul shots, Rimac made a coast-to-coast drive to tie again, 80-80. After some misses, however, Bazdaric appeared with a decisive triple for 83-80. Sesar then made only 1 of 2 free throws, while Bazdaric made both of his to seal the victory with 11 seconds to go as the Ljubljana crowd went nuts knowing that the Top 16 was coming to town.
Thursday, February 19, 2004