Lithuanian basketball pride is alive and extremely well in Kaunas tonight. Zalgiris Kaunas has registered perhaps the shocker of the season by dropping a 91-67 defeat on mighty Kinder Bologna and throwing Group B into a whole new light. The only undefeated team in Europe just 10 days ago, Kinder (6-2) has now lost two straight and must share first place. Zalgiris (3-5), meanwhile, has won three in a row to move closer to the top four spots in the group and potential advancement to the Top 16. How did it happen? A packed house of 4,000 and the underestimated Zalgiris guard line begin the explanation. Dainius Salenga (26 points), Donatas Slanina (23) and an injured Steve Woodberry (15) ignored the accolades heaped on Kinder's backcourt and took the game straight to the stars. Center Grygorij Hiznjak did the same inside against Rashard Griffith. Zalgiris was behind until Hiznjak's three-point play that ended the first quarter, but the home team would not trail again in the game. They led 45-31 at the half, and 66-50 after three quarters. By then the truth of this remarkable outcome was already clear. The memory of Kinder's 90-54 opening-game win in Bologna was erased. Zalgiris Kaunas was back and fighting for its Euroleague future.
After doubts that he would be healthy enough to play, Woodberry lit up hopes for the 4,000-strong crowd at Kaunas Sporto Hale by putting Zalgiris ahead 4-0. But Kinder guards Marko Jaric, Sani Becirovic (12 points) and Emanuel Ginobili (14) took advantage of a slow Kaunas defense to build up the first tangible lead, 11-6, in six minutes. Kinder center Rashard Griffith got two quick fouls, however, and Ettore Messina called on David Andersen to replace him. Zalgiris brought sharpshooter Donatas Slanina off the bench at the same time, and he and Dainius Salenga closed the gap to 15-15 after eight minutes. Hiznjak hit an inside basket and the foul shot that came with it to reclaim the lead for Zalgiris at 21-18 as first 10 minutes came to a close.
The second quarter began with Hiznjak ruling the inside, registering a block on Griffith and making his own shot as the Zalgiris lead soared to 30-20. But then Hiznjak had to leave with three fouls of his own, replaced by young Arturas Masiulias. Griffith and Matjaz Smodis were able to help reduce the deficit to five, 30-25, and the suspicion in Kaunas was that the reigning Euroleague champs were about to start their usual spurt to overtake control of the game. But here came the electric Slaninia, ready with 6 consecutive points to boost the lead to 36-25. That supplied all the momentum that Zalgiris needed to reach halftime with a 45-31 lead. The young Masiulis had done his part and added four points, while Woodberry broke down what had seemed like a Chinese Wall of Kinder defense early in the game. Ginobili was less noisy than usual for the guests, who got their biggest lift from Smodis, who had 8 points up to then.
Kinder opened the second half with a 6-0 run, closing its defensive loopholes from the second quarter and giving Zalgiris problems finishing its possessions. Again, the crowd thought that the visiting champs were getting ready to take over. It only took a few minutes for the lead to fall to seven, 50-43, following free throws by Becirovic. But now Jaric, one of the team's main engines in this quarter, committed his fourth foul, and before long, the Zalgiris trio of Woodberry, Salenga and Slanina was on fire again. The lead not only rose, but reached a game-high of 66-47. Becirovic finished the quarter at the foulline but the lead is still over 15 for Zalgiris, 66-50.
Messina already seemed to have given up. Instead of running along the sidelines as usual, he sat meditating while the Zalgiris lead escalated to 50-69. Jaric fouled out whilst Woodberry and Hiznjak took to the bench for Zalgiris, leaving reserves Rolandas Matulis, Masiulis and Vidas Ginevicius on court. Still, the Zalgiris margin went up, to 74-52 with 6 minutes to go. From there it was just a formality to the overwhelming victory that no one would have predicted for the world just two hours earlier.
Thursday, December 13, 2001