Maccabi Elite clinched a spot in the Top 16 and returned to the battle for the top spot in Group B with a convincing 87-68 win over Unicaja on Thursday night at Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv, Israel. Maccabi improved to 8-3 in the group, the same record as Unicaja, though the visiting side remains in second due to its 23-point win over the Israeli champs earlier this season in Malaga. The two trail Lietuvos Rytas for the group lead by one win. In the team’s second game under new head coach Zvika Sherf, Maccabi played better at both ends of the floor, holding an opponent below 70 points for the second straight week and impressing in its halfcourt offense. Marcus Fizer scored 16 of his season-high 19 points as Maccabi took a narrow lead after 10 minutes, which it never relinquished. Unicja remained close behind for much of the game, getting within 1 early in the third period and trailing by as little as 5 early in the fourth, but a consistent Maccabi attack and strong defense finished the game on a 24-10 tear to register the victory. David Bluthenthal hit 4 three-pointer on his way to 16 points, Terence Morris added 13 and Omri Casspi had a career-high 11 in 12 minutes. Alex Garcia struggled with his shooting (0 for 10), but dished 6 assists for the winners. Fizer also had 4 assists. Davor Kus led Unicaja with 17 points, Marcus Haislip added 13 and Boniface NDong added 9.
Maccabi came out fired up and scored on its first two possessions, with Fizer netting a basket inside, and Bluthenthal hitting a three-pointer from the top of the arc. But that same aggressive attitude led to early fouls on defense as Haislip and NDong both made pairs of free throws. Haislip soon added a jump hook and then a three to put Unicaja up 5-9. Fizer quickly tied it, but NDong’s work in the paint and a Jiri Welsch jumper kept the visitors ahead. Triples by Morris and Bluthenthal tied it once more at 15-15. Haislip and Welsch answered, but Fizer became the focal point of the Maccabi attack with 10 straight points, including drawing NDong’s second foul, hitting a three and then dropping a slam-plus-foul on Daniel Santiago to make it 25-21. Santiago answered with a pair of dunks, but Bluthenthal fed Morris with a crosscourt pass for a layup to end the period with the hosts leading 29-27.
Vonteego Cummings kept the momentum going with a jumper to start the second period and back-to-back traveling calls on Kus kept the visitors from answering. Casspi checked in with a long jumper, before Carlos Cabezas muscled his way to an offensive rebound and basket. Will Bynum went coast-to-coast for a layup and Esteban Batista converted in transition to make it 37-31, leading to an Unicaja timeout. Kus hit a triple and German Gabriel scored inside to close the gap to 1. Casspi continued his spirited play with a pair of offensive rebounds leading to a basket and a free throw. Kus countered by drilling a triple from the top of the key, but Casspi was there again for a tip-in. Bynum added a pair of free throws and Casspi swatted Kus in the closing seconds of the half to give Maccabi a 44-39 halftime lead.
NDong’s basket in the paint opened the third period, but Cummings fed Fizer for a bucket at the other end. Haislip scored twice to get Unicaja within 1, but Fizer returned the favor with a pass to Cummings for a score and then Morris added a basket to keep Maccabi ahead. Fizer converted a free throw to give him a season-high 19 already. Cabezas ran out of options as the Maccabi defense forced a shot-clock violation and then Fizer assisted Cummings for a basket-plus-foul that made it 56-47. Unicaja tried to stop the momentum with a timeout and NDong showed the visitors weren’t done with a wicked dunk. But Bluthenthal’s third three of he night gave the hosts their first double-digit advantage. NDong and Kus trimmed the deficit from the line, before a Bluthenthal runner and 2 more Kus free throws ended the third period with Maccabi up 61-54.
Morris and Santiago traded points at the start of the fourth quarter, but Carlos Jimenez’s second turnover in one minute held Unicaja back. But Maccabi started to misfire as well. Santiago scored inside to cut the gap to 5 only for Morris to answer again. Then Bluthenthal stepped up with a three-pointer that made it 68-58. Cabezas tried to get Unicaja going with a layup, but a Batista basket kept it a double-digit margin. Santiago was then whistled for a technical over an incident with Alex Garcia. Bluthenthal hit the resulting free throws and Yotam Halperin scored in transition to make it 74-60. Kus and Gabriel tried to fuel the visitors and after a Halperin technical, Kus cut the gap to 10 from the line. But Unicaja would get no closer as a Halperin three-pointer with two minutes remaining made it a 15-point game. The lead continued to grow in the closing minute as Casspi put the hosts up 19. Maccabi used a timeout as it tried to eclipse the 23-point loss it suffered in Malaga in November, but the visitors killed the clock to keep the potential head-to-head tiebreaker in their hands.
Thursday, January 10, 2008