They are well known for offense, but Benetton Treviso's defense made a powerful debut in the Top 16 by defeating dangerous Tau Ceramica 81-68 in the first Group F game for both teams. Benetton took its first comfortable lead late in the first period and kept enlarging it through intermission. Tau made varying attemps to get back in the game, coming closest in the early fourth quarter, but Benetton turned on the defense again and managed the lead through the finish for a 1-0 start in the new group. Denis Marconato led Benetton, scoring 8 of his 18 points in the third period and pulling down 11 boards for a double-double. Tyus Edney added 15 points, including 11 in the final quarter, Trajan Langdon 14 and Marcelo Nicola 11. For Tau, the scoring leader was Luis Scola, who dropped in 9 of his 22 points in the first period and added 10 boards. Andres Nocioni contributed 12 more points and Elmer Bennett 11 others.
Benetton fans celebrated during the warmup their team's recent triumph in the Italian Cup. The game started with two surprise starters for Tau, Leandro Palladino guarding Langdon and Thierry Gadou on Jorge Garbajosa. Palladino scored the first basket with a jumper off a screen, and the strategy of the guests from Vitoria was immediately clear: play under control and with a tough man-to-man defense. For the home team, Edney as usual tried to move at a high speed and the Benetton big men double-teamed Scola whenever the ball went to him in the post. The score remained close until Nicola's three-pointer gave Benetton a first slim lead, 13-10, but Palladino answered from the arc a few seconds later. Benetton head coach Ettore Messina began to use his deep bench early, and even if his team had problems under the boards, a former Tau player, Garbajosa, mixed a three-pointer with a turnaround jumper to give the hosts a 21-16 advantage. Benetton enlarged its lead to 26-16 in the final seconds of the half after a technical foul called on Nocioni following a layup posted by Marconato.
Marconato scored twice in a row with a jumper and a put-back to make it 30-18 early in the second quarter, but Scola answered with a short jumper and the additional free throw. Now, Ruben Wolkowyski came off the bench for his debut with Tau, but his first shot missed and Benetton got the ball to Langdon on the break for a triple and a sizable 35-21 advantage. Benetton's defensive plan locked in now and the way to the basket was cut off to the Spanish champions. After reaching a lead of 39-23, with Langdon scoring 7 points in a row, Benetton continued its run with Nicola scoring on one of an eventual 6 assists recorded by Riccardo Pittis. It was 42-23 with 4 minutes to go until the half. Tau attempted to play with Nocioni as power forward and to press full court, but Benetton's defense was too good and forced the guests into a series of turnovers. Scola and Marconato fought under the boards, but nobody scored in the last 2 minutes and Benetton led 43-27 at the half. Langdon was the scoring leader with 9 points and Elmer Bennett was tops for Tau with 7.
Scola scored Tau's first 5 points after halftime to make it 46-32 but Benetton was still in control as Marconato made a layup for 51-34. The fighter's pride of Tau remained evident, however, as the visitors adjusted their defense on penetrations and stole two balls as Sergi Vidal's fastbreak layup cut the deficit to 51-38. Messina called a Benetton timeout, but immediately thereafter, Foirest hit a three-pointer that trimmed the difference to its lowest since the first quarter, 51-41. There were no more easy shots for Benetton now, and with the slow pace, the Italians found it difficult to score. That rare drought lasted for 3 minutes until a dunk by Marconato on Massimo Bulleri's assist broke the ice. But after Nocioni buried a three for Tau, the deficit was down to single digits, 57-48, after 29 minutes. Marconato kept it from going down further by blocking Scola's shot at the buzzer to end the third quarter.
The game was on fire beginning the crucial fourth quarter, and if Benetton still could not stop Scola, who scored his 19th point early in the period, neither was Tau able to avoid the pivotal three-pointer launched by Nicola. Benetton's defense then forced a 24-second violaton on the Spaniards with 6:18 to go and 67-54 on the scoreboard, exciting the Italian team and its fans. When Edney followed with a coast-to-coast fastbreak against sleeping Tau defenders, the notion of a late rally by the Spanish champs was done for. Tau never gave up, but Benetton managed the score until the end while also finishing what was probably its best defensive game of the season. Tau, however, would have to wait until the two teams meet again in Vitoria to prove it could play similarly.
Wednesday, February 26, 2003