Maccabi Tel Aviv marched through the front door to another Final Four on Thursday with an overwhelming 65-94 road win against Tau Ceramica and its sellout crowd of 9,200 in Vitoria, Spain. Coming on the last night of Top 16 action, the 29-point victory allowed Maccabi to seize the Final Four berth in Group H by having the best point differential against Tau, with whom it finished in a two-way tie for first place at 4-2. Tau had won their previous game by a single point in Tel Aviv. Knowing it needed to win by at least 5 to advance, Maccabi rose to the occasion with a defense that just baffled its hosts on their own floor. Maccabi led by doulbe-digits early and really never looked back. Anthony Parker, who finished with 21 points, proved unstoppable for Tau. Derrick Sharp added 20, Arriel McDonald 17, Huseyin Besok 14 and Radislav Curcic 10 for the winners. As a result, in Bologna on Friday, May 3, Maccabi will once again confront Panathianikos of Athens, the team it beat for the Suproleague crown last season. The other semifinal will feature two Italian teams, Euroleague defending champion Kinder Bologna and Benetton Treviso. The winners will meet for the Euroleague title on Sunday, May 5. Tau was unable to use its crowd energy to overcome a Maccabi defense that started tough and got tougher as the game went on. Elmer Bennett, with 17 points, and Andres Nocioni, with 10, were the only players able to reach double-digits for last season's Euroleague runners-up.
Maccabi made the early move by racing ahead 5-10 with Parker hitting two unstoppable jumpers while Huseyin Besok and Derrick Sharpe made their first shots. The only Tau player finding his way against Maccabi's defense, meanwhile, was Fabricio Oberto. His three-point play to make it 8-10 had an added bonus of coming on Huffman's second foul, sending Maccabi's inside anchor to the bench. But the visitors did not flinch. Sharp raised up and landed the first and only three-pointer of the whole first quarter as Maccabi got down to even tighter defense. Oberto went to the foulline twice more, but made only 1 of 4 free ones before a dunk drew Tau within 11-15. Maccabi, however, finished off the quarter with Radislav Curcic making a three-point play for an 11-20 lead. Curcic was scoring at one end, five points in all, while playing the physical defense that seemed to have most of Tau's players tentative with the ball.
The momentum shifted to start the second quarter, as Bennett and Scola scored two baskets each in a 12-5 run that pulled Tau within 23-25 on the scoreboard. But as quick as it seemed that the home team had figured out Maccabi's defense, the sooner the visitors responded. Parker and McDonald got Maccabi moving again by finding holes in the Tau defense. They anchored a 6-13 run that ended when Parker drove from the wing for an open dunk with hardly any Tau defender moving to help stop him. When Yoav Saffar stuffed an offensive rebound seconds later, Maccabi was cruising at 30-43. Tau had a couple minutes before halftime, fortunately, and used them to score 3 unanswered points and leave the damage at 33-43, a tall order even for a home team considering the quality of Maccabi's defense all season.
Tau needed to make a move to start the second half, but it was Maccabi that picked its game up a notch on offense. Besok and McDonald drilled three-pointers to open the third quarter, while the Maccabi defense harasses Tau into turnovers and indecision at every turn. And Tau's rebounders couldn't get close to any missed shots, not their own or Maccabi's. By the time 10 minutes were up, Maccabi had won the quarter 12-24 and was ahead 45-67. The crowd wasn't about to get backin this one, not the way that Parker finished that third quarter, with another incredible shot that fell despite a Tau defender draped all over him. It was more of the same in the fourth quarter, as Maccabi proved that at either end of the court, it was not going to be denied, not tonight, not even in Vitoria, not with a Final Four ticket for the winners.
Thursday, April 18, 2002