The belief that just getting a new coach can lift a team will enjoy more credence than ever after Zalgiris Kaunas, just three days under new boss Antaras Sireika, registered the scoop of the night by downing Maccabi Tel Aviv 87-74 on its first official visit to Lithuania. The unexpected result leaves Group B as tight as possible at the halfway point in the regular season. Zalgiris improved to 2-5, Maccabi fell to 3-4 and six teams are now locked within two victories of each other in third through last place. Zalgiris played more confidently all night, but a 14-0 run midway through the final quarter sealed the deal in a way that previously eluded the Lithuanians. Big center Gintaras Einikis was a game-breaker, hitting 4 of 4 three-pointers en route to floor highs of 20 points and 13 rebounds. Saulius Stombergas added 19 points for the winners, Kornel David 15 and Ed Cota 13, plus 9 assists. Maccabi was led by Nikola Vujcic with 16 points and 9 rebounds. Quincy Lewis and Marcus Goree tallied 14 each and Tal Burstein 11, but 37.5% shooting inside the arc hurt the visitors.
Zalgiris opened with a better defensive work than in most of its previous games and Maccabi failed to score some difficult shots. Two baskets by Cota got an immediate reply from Quincy Lewis, who gave his team a lead at 4-5. Cota was doing a great job both scoring, with 6 points already, and defending. When Einikis stepped out and banged a three for Zalgiris, the hosts were up 11-7 after 6 minutes. Lewis blocked a three-point attempt Stombergas, but missed himself at the other end. Stombergas got the ball back on the arc and made sure this time. Marcus Goree answered for Maccabi with 4 points around a Giedrius Gustas basket for Zalgiris. Maccabi was tightening its defensive grip, but paying a price in personal fouls. Two free throws by Stombergas put the Zalgiris lead at 19-14 after 10 minutes as a final three-point attempt by Lewis missed for the visitors.
The lead improved to 7 points on two more Stombergas free throws to start the second quarter, but now the hosts found foul trouble, too, with David getting his third. Mindaugas Timinskas, working hard in his debut after a long injury, blocked an attempted triple by Derrick Sharp, but the Maccabi vet got the ball back and banked in a two-pointer. Stombergas answered from downtown for a 26-18 Zalgiris lead, but soon Vujcic copied him and 2 free throws by Huseyin Besok had the visitors within 26-23. Vidas Ginevicius of Zalgiris and David Bluthental of Maccabi then traded threes and it was 29-27 halfway through the quarter. David came back for the hosts, now, and was soon scoring 6 consecutive points to put some breathing room on the board, which read 35-29 with 2 minutes remaining until the half. Young center Darius Silinskis now joined David with a high shot over Besok's outstretched arms. Vujcic, shooting better from deep than inside, nailed his second missile, but Zalgiris refused to yield. Cota reappeared with a nice lefthander off the glass, sending the teams to the locker rooms with 42-36 on the scoreboard.
If big men were going to shoot threes, Einikis decided he would join the fun after halftime, and with a pair of shots from way out there boosted the Zalgiris advantage to 48-40. Einikis was feeling good as he added 2 free throws for 8 points in all of 3 minutes. The Zalgiris defense slackened, but the hosts were lucky enough to get another two-pointer from Einikis and big three from Stombergas. Two shots made by Lewis, the second from three-point territory, pulled Maccabi to within 61-53 as the quarter wound down. But Cota came up big with a desperation shot at the end of one possession. A Timinskas free throw was needed to give Zalgiris a point more of advantage than it had at the half, 64-57.
Zalgiris was tentative defensively to start the final quarter, but kept finding offensive solutions. After Vujcic drew a foul on Einikis and Burstein hit from deep, Cota slalomed to the basket for a layup. Einikis then raised up for his fourth three-pointer of the night, and a huge one it was, putting the lead at 72-63. When Cota dished a great assist to David for a basket-plus-foul, Zalgiris was buoyant again, with its largest lead of the night, 77-63 halfway through the corner. Timinskas then added a bucket and Stombergas 2 free throws to extend the run to 14-0 over 4 minutes. Sharp stopped the slide with a triple from the corner, but Maccabi's back remained against the wall. As the entered the final minute ahead 85-69, the Zalgiris players could share something big with their fans almost for the first time this season.
Thursday, December 5, 2002
Arunas Pakula, Kaunas