Maccabi Tel Aviv banished all earlier doubts and took the high road into the Top 16 on Thursday by turning back Zalgiris Kaunas 76-71 in front of a full Yad Eliyahu arena to clinch fifth place in Group B. Maccabi finished the regular season 7-7 and didn't have to bother with ties or point totals to go where it expected to be all along, the Top 16. A tight game throughout was decided with good defense on the part of the hosts, who forced 20 turnovers from Zalgiris. The Lithuanians were left with the feeling that their end-of-season run had been too little, too late. Indeed, as it turns out, they would have needed an 27-point win to get a berth in the Top 16. That was not to be on Thursday as Quincy Lewis lit up Yad Eliyahu for 25 points. He was followed in the scoring column by Nikola Vujcic with 18 points and Derrick Sharp with 13. Zalgiris, which finished in seventh place at 5-9, got 21 points from Ed Cota, 14 points and 12 rebounds from Tanoka Beard, and 13 points from Saulius Stombergas.
Zalgiris started auspiciously, with one of Europe's best streak shooters, Stombergas, hitting a triple to open the game. But Maccabi's intentions were just as clear on the next possession, as Gur Shelef scored and drew David's first foul for a three-point play to equalize. Zalgiris needed to show early signs of great offense, great defense or both, but a rash of 4 turnovers by the visitors kept the score low, although they led 3-5 on a David layup. The slow scoring provoked a quick timeout by visiting coach Antanas Sireika, but after 6 minutes it was Maccabi who had pushed ahead 9-7 on a pair of Quincy Lewis free throws. Derrick Sharp made it 12-9 with Maccabi's first triple and then 15-10 with another. The score was going up, but not as Zalgiris would have hoped. Before the visitors could huddle again at the end of the quarter, Lewis had popped in 5 more points, including a triple. Yoav Saffar closed out the 10 minutes with free throws that were good for the first double-digit lead of the night, 22-12.
Zalgiris needed a lifeline now, and when Stombergas started the second quarter as he had the first, with a big three-pointer from the arc, it was a good sign for the guests. Two scoreless minutes passed, but then Cota matched his teammate from downtown, and the Maccabi lead had dropped to 22-18. Sharp wasted no time in doing the same for Maccabi, however, but there the offense of the hosts stalled. Cota kept pushing until his single free throw tied things 27-27 in the 16th minute, but wouldn't you know that Sharp answered immediately with a jumper for Maccabi. Now, the big men for the home team got involved, too, with Nikola Vujcic scoring 3 baskets and Marcus Goree 1 as they retook a 37-31 lead. Cota stepped up again for Zalgirs from behind the arc to make it 37-34, but Vujcic and Goree continued to score through the final minute to preserve a 41-36 lead for Maccabi at the half.
The third quarter was also close. The turnover total that kept growing for Zalgiris was mitigated by a climbing rebound total for the visitors. Maccabi failed to make some of its simplest shots, including a dunk by Lewis, who hit only the rim, and a layup by Huseyin Besok. However, Maccabi kept the lead thanks to a solid contribution by Vujcic and Goree, and a season-high 18 minutes given to Doron Sheffer, who scored his first 2 Euroleague points this season. Another Stombergas three, with 47 seconds left, marked the last basket of the Lithuanians in the Euroleague, too little too late as in the rest of the season.
Thursday, February 13, 2003
Eran Sela, Tel Aviv