Zalgiris of Kaunas might want to ask for a schedule change so it can play Unicaja more often. Needing a win to keep its remote Top 16 hopes intact, Zalgiris beat Unicaja for the second time this season, 87-67, in a game that was not the least bit predictable. Zalgiris ran all night without suffering Unicaja's better bench depth, and its worst defense in the Euroleague held the Spanish powerhouse to its season-low scoring total. On its long trip from Spain, Unicaja brought with it a 10-degree change to the frigid Lithuanian temperatures, but forgot its uniforms. It played the first half in jerseys and shorts manufactured earlier Wednesday in Kaunas, and changed into the real ones when they arrived at halftime. It didn't matter. Zalgiris led from tipoff to buzzer and rarely saw less than a double-digit lead after halftime. Gintaras Einikis led the winners with 20 points. Dainius Salenga added 17 points, Kornel David the same plus 10 rebounds. And Ed Cota had a rare points and assists double-double with 10 of each. A matchup zone defense also starred for Zalgiris, as the road-weary Unicaja players seemed powerless to attack it. Only Stephane Risacher with 14 points and Louis Bullock with 13 could make the ball go in for the visitors, whose record falls to 5-5. Zalgiris is now 3-7 and retains some hope of squeezing into a position to qualify for the Top 16.
Zalgiris opened with good variety, as 3 free throws by David, 2 by Salenga and a first basket by Einikis put the locals ahead 9-3. Unicaja's only points until then came on a triple by Stephane Risacher, but he soon had 2 fouls trying to guard Salenga. Unicaja boss Bozidar Maljkovic used a timeout to put Bullock and Gurovic in the game, but the Zalgiris zone defense merely bent without breaking. Salenga took a nice feed from Ed Cota and Einikis hit another bucket as the lead reached 15-7. Bullock and Gurovic hit the first consiecutive shots for Unicaja, but in between Vidas Ginevicius scored on a steal so the lead held at 18-11. The pace was quickening, and the Kaunas crowd responded to each good action or mistake by both sides. To end the quarter, Cota sandwiched a pair of driving shots around a three-pointer by Gurovic, preserving the Zalgiris lead at 22-14 after 10 minutes.
When Unicaja tried its own zone to start the second quarter, Ginevicius made it pay with a quick triple. Bullock copied him, but Einikis canned another lane jumper for a 10-point lead, 27-17. Roger Esteller, back after almost two months on the injured list, nailed a three-pointer that seemed to spark something in Unicaja. Bullock added 4 free throws to make it a 0-7 run and cut the lead to 27-24. But there the visitors were stopped, the answer being an 8-1 run by Zalgiris on two Stombergas shots and one each by David and Salenga. The lead was back to double digits at 35-24, and not even a triple by Berni Rodriguez could dampen Zalgiris. Getting free in the paint repeatedly now, Einikis scored twice on offensive rebounds to make it 39-29. Before the half could end, it was David finding another open two-pointer and putting it through for a 42-30 home team advantage. The defenses were not yet as big a factor as expected before the game, which was all to the benefit of Zalgiris. Bullock was leading all scorers with 11 points, while Einikis was up to 10 for the leaders.
Unicaja's depth and busy rotations fed expectations of an impending Unicaja comeback, especially with Bullock's recent reputation for deciding games late. For the moment, however, Zalgiris enjoyed the pace, no one morese than Salenga in the third quarter. As soon as Unicaja got a couple points back at 44-34, he took over with three fastbreaks finished with two dunks and a foul shot thrown in for good measure. It was a one-man 7-0 run and it broke the game open, with Zalgiris now ahead 17 points, 49-34, after 24 minutes. By the time Einikis rejoined the scoring several minutes later, the lead was still holding strong at 56-40. Unicaja tried to inch closer as Ademola Okulaja, quiet until then, scored 3 points and Frederic Weis added a dunk to make it 56-45 with 2 minutes remaining in the period. But Mindaugas Timinskas took his captain's role seriously and drained a pair of three-pointers. A minute later, Ginevicius was doing the same, booming another shot from behind the arc to complete an 11-1 run that put Zalgiris fully in charge, 67-46, after 30 minutes.
Zalgiris returned to the zone to start the final quarter, but Risacher hurt it with a triple. Adam Wojcik soon hit another for Unicaja as the lead dwindled some. But Zalgiris did not stop scoring itself, and despite a 6-13 run by the visitors, still led 73-59 halfway through the quarter. That's when Timinskas dished an excellent assist for Einikis. Finally, it seemed that whatever Unicaja was going to put through the basket, its defense did not have the strength this night to make a stand against a Zalgiris team that kept finding varios options. A spell of free throws finished with David making two straight baskets, the second and alley-oop lobbed by Cota. The run-and-gun pace contined until David had another dunk to make it 83-67 with 1 minute left. The lead was truly safe and Zalgiris lived to fight another day for its dream of making it to the Top 16.
Wednesday, January 8, 2003