It looked more like a championship final in spring than an autumn opener Thursday night in Vitoria, Spain as two huge teams shooting for it all this Euroleague season presented their credentials in a Group B showdown that was basketball at it's finest. When the dust settled, Spanish champs Tau Ceramica had rallied from 7 points down in the last 3 minutes to top visiting Maccabi Tel Aviv 85-79. The man of the night, with no doubt, was Tau forward Hanno Mottola, who finished with 31 points, 7 rebounds and 4 steals. He made 1O of 13 two-pointers, 2 of 2 threes and 5 of 7 free throws, including the deep two-pointer from the wing gave Tau its first lead of the second half wit 52 seconds to go. Maccabi managed just a free throw after that as Jerome Allen and Jose Manuel Calderon sealed the victory at the foul line, where Tau made 25 of 30 attempts on the night. Oddly enough, except for being unable to stop Mottola, Maccabi had seemed in control all evening as balanced scoring Quincy Lewis outside and Nikola Vujcic inside produced consistent leads over 5 points. Maccabi just never got far enough away to resists a slump, which happened in the final minutes and resulted in Tau taking revenge for a loss on the same floor that cost the Spaniards a trip to the Final Four last season.
Tau, with four new starters from last season, began by running its offense through center Rashard Griffith, but the man of the quarter for the home team would be Mottola. The Finnish forward scored 11 points in the first 7 minutes, but it only served to keep Tau close, because Maccabi was scoring from everywhere. Inside, Vujcic was holding his own on offense, while outside Lewis hit the first three-pointer of the night. Huseyin Besok inside, Tal Burstein driving, Gur Shelef from outside, Beno Udrih on layups, Marcus Goree on rebounds and finally Yoav Saffar with a three on the last possession: Maccabi was scoring in a blur. Eight different players were on the board for Maccabi by the end of 10 minutes, and the scoreboard read 23-33. An intentional foul was called on Andres Nocioni at the end of the quarter was indicative of the tension level in Fernando Buesa Arena. The second quarter saw both teams cool down for several minutes, but Maccabi still flirted with double digit leads as much of the scoring shifted to the foul line. Saffar restored the Maccabi lead to 10 points, at 33-43, before Tau reacted again at the close of the quarter. This time a Griffith hook shot started his team back, while Mottola picked up from there sandwiching two baskets around three free throws from Sergi Vidal to pull Tau within 42-46 at the break. Mottola led all scorers with 15 points, while Maccabi's scoring was more distributed as Lewis was on 9 and Saffar 7 to lead the visitors.
Vujcic, with 6 points right after halftime, helped Maccabi reestablish bigger leads quickly, with the score hitting 49-59 midway through the third quarter even after a three-point play by Calderon of Tau. Now, however, Mottola decided to take his game outside, where he drilled back-to-back three-pointers. The next possession, he faked in the corner and took it to the hoop. That fast, Tau was back within 57-61. Then another newcomer, Leandro Palladino, raised up for his own triple from the corner to hold the line for Tau at 60-63 going into the final period.
But if Mottola was unstoppable for Tau, Vujcic and Lewis were close to it for Maccabi. With an inside layup from the first and three-pointer from the second, Maccabi was back to a good-size lead at 64-71 early in the fourth quarter. This time, Nocioni helped Tau recoup, with his own three, which Mottola followed with anothe basket. Still, as Beno Udrih fed Vujcic for an easy layup, Maccabi led 70-77 going into the final 3 minutes. Nocioni made one nifty fastbreak basket and then another off a steal by Luis Scola to erase the deficit and pull Tau to within 77-78. Under a minute was left, Maccabi was struggling to hit anything, and Mottola stepped out again and splashed in another shot. It seemed to demoralize Maccabi to lose the lead so late. Udrih went to the line with 11 seconds left, but missed the first of 2 free throws, letting Tau finish it with free throws.
Thursday, October 10, 2002