Marcus Brown's driving layup with 1.2 seconds remaining allowed Unicaja to cap its first trip to the Euroleague Basketball Final Four with a 74-76 victory over Tau Ceramica on Sunday at Athens Olympic Indoor Hall (OAKA). Unicaja trailed by 10 points at the end of the third quarter, but rode the momentum of Marko Tusek's outside shooting and Brown's clutch play down the stretch to come back and secure the victory. Brown and Tusek combined for 18 of Unicaja's 25 points in the decisive fourth quarter. Tusek finished with a game-high 18 on 5-of-6 three-point shooting, while Brown had 14. Carlos Jimenez added 10 and Pepe Sanchez ran the show with 8 assists. Igor Rakocevis led Tau with 16, Zoran added 15, Luis Scola 14, Pablo Prigioni 13 and Tiago Splitter finished with 10 points and 8 rebounds. The free-flowing game was even for much of the first half, at the end of which Tau led 40-35. Coach Bozidar Maljkovic's side pulled away in the third period behind strong minutes by Planinic and Prigioni, but Unicaja would have the last laugh down the stretch. Nevertheless, both teams have plenty to be proud of as they head back to Spain after reaching the Final Four – for Tau the third straight time and for Unicaja the first ever.
Unicaja struck first with a three-pointer by Marcus Faison. Scola fed Splitter for a power layup, which Prigioni followed with a driving basket for a 4-3 Tau lead. Points came the hard way, as both teams tried to recover from Friday's losses. Jiri Welsch buried a long two-pointer and then Jimenez hit one from downtown to put Unicaja back ahead, 5-8, after 5 minutes. Rakocevic joined the three-point festival, but Welsch answered with a driving layup. Fred House woke Tau up with a dunk after a midcourt steal and Rakocevic buried his second triple for another lead change, 13-10. Kostas Vasileadis and Alfonso Sanchez stepped on court, making their Final Four debuts, and Jimenez then made free throws for Unicaja. Scola stepped up with a put-back basket, but Vasileadis answered from downtown for a 15-16 Unicaja edge after 10 minutes.
Unicaja kept Alfonso Sanchez at the point guard spot early in the second quarter and he fed Tusek for a triple. Planinic answered the same way before House made free throws to put Tau back ahead, 20-19. Vasileadis finished a third-chance Unicaja offense with a power layup off the baseline. Scola scored down low for Tau, but Tusek bettered it with a three-pointer, good for a 22-24 Unicaja lead. Tau kept looking for Scola, who shined with a layup-plus-foul. A red-hot Vasileadis erased it with one from downtown. Planinic showed its talent with a driving layup, but Iñaki De Miguel followed a free throw with a five-meter shot to keep Unicaja ahead 27-30. Rakocevic scored in penetration, and even though Tusek canned another three-pointer, a layup-plus-foul by Planinic got Tau within 32-33. De Miguel paced Unicaja with another jumper, but Rakocevic fired in back-to-back three-pointers to help his team regain the lead, 38-35. Planinic corrected his own missed jumper to make it 40-35 at the end of a first half that saw six ties and 11 lead changes.
De Miguel opened the second half with a baseline jumper, as Tau now tried to open the floor with Mirza Teletovic at power forward. Prigioni buried a big triple in transition, but De Miguel scored in the paint to get Unicaja within 43-39. Rakocevic stepped up with a six-meter jumper and by the time Splitter hit an easy layup, Tau had its biggest margin yet, 47-39. Unicaja was not done, however, as Faison took over with a driving layup and Jimenez followed a triple with an easy basket to get his team within 1 on a 0-7 run. Splitter stepped up with a tip-in, but Pepe Sanchez answered from downtown to tie the game again. Prigioni replied the same way and then collected a pair of steals for Tau as Unicaja had lost its momentum. Sergi Vidal dunked after another midcourt steal and Planinic's elegant driving layup caused Unicaja to call timeout at 56-49. Unicaja went scoreless for 4 minutes while Scola capped a 9-0 run with an easy basket. Brown scored in penetration and Pietrus had a huge block on House, but a three-pointer by Planinic fixed the score at 61-51 after three quarters.
Tusek tried to ignite a Unicaja comeback with a triple early in the final period as Tau now had trouble finding Scola in the low post. The big man stepped up with a put-back layup, but an active Tusek answered with a basket-plus-foul to get Unicaja within 63-57. Brown shined with a driving layup only to see Splitter erase it with a big basket at the other end. Brown fired one in from downtown to bring Unicaja back to life at 65-62 with 6 minutes to go. Scola hit back with an acrobatic layup, and Unicaja called timeout down 67-62. Pepe Sanchez hit free throws, but Splitter stepped up with another put-back layup. Tusek buried his fifth three-pointer in as many attempts and now Tau called timeout at 69-67. Brown collected a steal and made free throws for a 69-69 tie with less than 3 minutes remaining. Both teams missed shots down the stretch until Brown hit a triple to complete the Unicaja comeback, 69-72, with 1:19 to go. Prigioni immediately answered from downtown to tie it at 72-72. Pietrus made a tip-in with 54.4 seconds remaining and Scola committed a turnover at the other end, but Brown missed a driving layup that allowed Prigioni to tie the game again, 74-74, with 8.4 seconds to go. Brown took over with the game-winning driving layup with 1.2 seconds to go allowing the Unicaja fans that traveled all the way to Athens to return home at the end of a historical Euroleague season with a smile in their faces.
Sunday, May 6, 2007