With just a pair of Top 16 weeks left, Zalgiris Kaunas got help from an unlikely source to keep its hand firmly on first place in Group G with a resounding 95-72 home victory over winless Ulker on Thursday. The victory boosts Zalgiris to 3-1 as it awaits the Euroleague Disciplinary Judge's decision on the game between Maccabi and Pamesa Valencia that was suspended on Thursday when the Spanish team did not travel to Tel Aviv. All three teams had been tied 2-1 entering the week. The unexpected star for Zalgiris on Thursday was 2.12-meter center Darjusz Lawrynowicz, who had played only 15 minutes in previous Euroleague games this season, but finished with 17 points. He made 5 of 7 two-pointers, his only attempted triple and 4 of 4 free throws, while also blocking 3 shots. Dainius Salenga came next with 15 points, and Arvydas Sabonis with a double-double of 14 points and 12 rebounds. Mindaugas Timinskas chipped in 11 points, Tanoka Beard and Giedrius Gustas 10 each. For Ulker, which travelled without Top 16 scoring leader Ibrahim Kutluay and center Efthimios Rentzias, Petar Naumoski had 17 points, Veljko Mrsic 14, Joseph Blair 11, Tutku Acik and Melvin Booker 10 each.
Zalgiris surprised people by sending out little-used Simonas Serapinas and Lawrynowicz in starting five together with a limping Sabonis, who has a sore toe. Serapinas immediately understood his difficult defensive duty as Naumoski opened the game with a three-pointer. Sabonis soon matched him with a shot from downtown, after which Salenga and Serapinas started scoring until Zalgiris had 11 unanswered points and an 11-3 advantage. Ulker's Joe Blair was having tough time in the paint, so the visitors lived just on long-distance shots by Naumoski, who had his team's points on a 15-8 scoreboard after 5 minutes. Naumoski added another 3 points and Blair joined him with a basket as Ulker reduced the gap to 17-13 after 8 minutes. Tanoka Beard replaced Sabonis and immediately made a jumper, then Giedrius Gustas added another basket to help Zalgiris finish the quarter with a healthy lead, 23-15.
To start the second quarter, Ulker set up a zone, but Mindaugas Timinskas and Gustas punished it with three-pointers for a 29-15 Zalgiris advantage. Ulker forward Veljko Mrsic, a former Zalgiris player, showed he still knew the court by getting to the foul line for 4 points, but they were negated by a Beard basket and a triple by Ainars Bagatskis. After Tutku Acik dribbled through the Zalgiris defense for a nice off-the-glass basket, Mrsic got to shoot free throws again and ruded the gap to 35-27. A parade of Zalgiris players kept contributing with points, eight of them had 4 points or more in the half - but it was Salenga who stood out, dunking spectacularly on a steal following a Tutku Acik three-pointer for Ulker. In the closing mnute, the scoring pace continued with Ed Cota hitting a basket and Timinskas dunking for Zalgiris while Mrsic finally scored from somewhere besides the foul line, dropping a buzzer-beater that left the halftime difference at an even 10 points, 47-37.
If the revival of Salenga was good news for Zalgiris fans in the first half, the second brought more in the person of Lawrynowicz, who opened the scoring after the break by converting a lob pass from Sabonis. Booker scored a couple baskets for Ulker, but in each case, Lawrynowicz was ready with a reply, adding 2 more points from the foul line for a 55-41 Zalgiris lead. Blair and Mrsic conbined for 5 points to bring Ulker within 58-46, so Lawrynowicz simply dropped a three-pointer to climb to 15 points so far. Booker and Cota exchanged baskets, then Timinskas answered a two-pointer by Blair with a triple. With under 3 minutes left, Naumoski scored free throws, his first points since the opening quarter, but Lawrynowicz rejected his next shot and then went to the line himself, boosting his point total to 17 and the Zalgiris lead after 30 minutes to 72-55.
Zalgiris showed it would not slip as Sabonis started the final quarter with a fadeaway jumper and a dunk. Another three-pointer by Acik and more points from him and Muratcan Guler got the difference down to 79-65 before Ulker tried a zone defense again. After an airball, Gustas showed his nerves are fit by making a three-pointer on the successive possession. Ed Cota, who would finish with 7 assists, then gave Zalgiris its first 20-point lead, 87-67. With 4 minutes to go, another Zalgiris youngster, Andrius Lepinaitis, made his Euroleague debut, signalling that the outcome was already obvious to both teams. In the time before the buzzer, they staged a spectacular show for the crowd, 150 Ulker fans included, with Lepinaitis scoring his first points, while Sabonis and Beard increased the lead to 23 points when the buzzer sounded.
Thursday, March 25, 2004