Tau Ceramica of Spain held on to a precious piece of first place in the tight Group H race for the Final Four by topping Ulker in Istanbul 72-89 on Wednesday, ending the most remote chance of the Turkish champs to survive the Top 16. Tau's frontline proved entirely too strong for a home team that decided to switch centers, from Bud Eley to Isaac Austin, earlier in the week and was left without either on the roster Wednesday. Tau broke the game open with a 23-13 third quarter after which Ulker never did attempt a serious comeback. The victory lifts Tau to 3-1, guaranteeing it a share of the Group H leadership with the winner of Thursday's game between CSKA (2-1) and Maccabi Tel Aviv (2-1) in Moscow. Tau rebounded from its home loss to CSKA last week by emphasizing its inside game. Luis Scola came off the bench for 21 points to lead six Tau scorers in double figures. Hugo Sconochini added 16, Elmer Bennett 14, Dejan Tomasevic 13, Fabricio Oberto 11 and Sergi Vidal 10. For Ulker, which falls to 0-4, Harun Erdenay tallied 15 points, Haruk Yildirim 14, Asim Pars 13 and Kerem Gonlum 10.
With playmaker Chris Corchiani and defensive specialist Laurent Foirest injured, Tau head coach Dusko Ivanovic put the ball in Bennett's hands and gave starting nods to Hugo Sconochini and Sergi Vidal, the latter designated to play defense on Erdenay, Ulker's veteran scoring ace. In the first quarter, Vidal did his job well, but Pars, Yildirim and Gonlum didn't allow the favored visitors to pull away by more than 3 points, 20-23, at the end of the period, even though the guests had forged a seven-point lead on several occasions during the first 10 minutes. Tau was always in the lead thanks to its balance in the paint between Fabricio Oberto and Luis Scola, as Dejan Tomasevic committed his second foul early and was sent to the bench. Tau's outside game featured a good percentage on two-point shots, with Scola scoring six easy points upon entering midway through the quarter, but poor figures in threes. Despite easy going inside for the Spaniards, Ulker was always close behind.
In the second quarter, thanks to Scola's efficiency, Tau reached a seven-point lead again at 23-30, but that was when the best minutes of Ulker arrived. With a series of baskets by Yildrim, Ulker tied the game at 31, which forced Ivanovic to call a timeout. A three-pointer by Miljan Goljevic, who had just come off the bench, gave Ulker its first lead of the game at 34-33. Another three by Erdenay over Sconochini's outstretched hands, as Vidal had been in the bench for some minutes, tied the game at 37 again, but the last minutes of the period were used by the guests to reestablish control. With Tomasevic getting a couple baskets and controlling the rebounds, Tau scored the final 6 points of the quarter to take a 37-43 lead at the half. The visitors led despite missing all four of their three-point attempts thusfar while Ulker had made 4 of 11 from downtown. The story was under the boards, however, where Tau was outrebounding Ulker 11-19.
In the second half, all hopes that Ulker had started to vanish as Tau, with an excellent defense, almost sealed its rim against the rival's attempts to score. Meanwhile, on the offesnive end, the Tau players continued to score easily inside, and soon the perimeter shooters would join the fun. A string of three consecutive three-pointers, two by Bennett and one by Sconochini, filled a 2-11 run that pushed the lead from 45-51 to 47-62 in the midde of the quarter. Ulker coach Murat Didin was the one forced to call timeouts now, but he didn't manage to change the direction of the game. Didin tried to stop the rival with a zone defense, but that too was unsuccessful. The third quarter ended 50-66, and Ulker was almost out of hope to face in the last 10 minutes.
Ulker's struggle on all fronts was evident in the last quarter, which was a mere formality. Vidal's basket for a 20-point lead at 69-89 was the confirmation of his great game, mainly defensive, against a classic player such as Erdenay, who was limited to 15 points in the end.
Wednesday, March 27, 2002
Gokhan Ture, Istanbul