A moment of truth became a moment of glory in Zagreb, Croatia on Thursday as Cibona VIP stared down a visit from its nearest pursuer, Alba Berlin, and marched into the Top 16 with a rousing 90-72 victory in Group A. Cibona raised its record to 6-6, good for fifth place, and dropped Alba to 4-8, the same as Pau-Orthez, with two games remaining in the regular season. Since Cibona holds advantages in point differentials over both Alba and Pau, the Croatian champs advance no matter ties might occur now. A defense that forced 21 turnovers on Alba and stole 15 balls sparked Cibona's rout and impressive 65.7% shooting on two-pointers kept the hosts in charge all night. Marijan Mance led the winners with 20 points. Zoran Planinic added 17, Haris Mujezinovic 14 and Niksa Prkacin 11 for Cibona. Alba suffered from foul trouble to big man Jovo Stanojevic, who was on-court only 9 minutes before fouling out. In his absence, Quadre Lollis did yoeman's work with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. Marko Pesic was the only other Alba player in double figures with 12 points.
For both teams this was a moment-of-truth, winner-take-all challenge. Alba was looking for the repeat of the first match in Berlin and with it great postion to reach the Top 16. Cibona was looking for a win to enlarge the existing one-victory gap between the two teams. It was close for most of the first half, but Cibona was always looking a likely winner. Planinic had a great first quarter, scoring 12 points as Cibona got throught 10 minutes with a 23-20 lead. By the middle of the second quarter, Alba was holding on within the same 3 points, at 30-27, with Stanojevic already sitting but Lollis and Teoman Ozturk holding up their team under the basket. But that was as close as Alba got. Four quick points between Barisa Krasic and Prkacin made it 34-27. When Prkacin dunked for a second time just before the half, Cibona had a nine-point lead, 47-38, to work with for the final 20 minutes.
Out of the lockerrooms, Cibona kept pushing and never looked back. The key, as Cibona coach Aleksandar Petrovic had been saying all week, was containing either Stanojevic or Lollis, if not both. In their first game, Alba dominanted the boards and won by 14 points as Stanojevic had a great game. This time, Stanojevic was in foul trouble early, with 3 fouls in the first 5 minutes. He finished with 8 points. Cibona, meanwhile, had plenty of contributors, with Mance stepping up for his biggest scoring night ever in Europe. As the outcome became clear, the question of whether Cibona could overcome the 14-point margin of the first loss was crucial. With 15, Cibona could assure its Top 16 trip, and with 2 points each in the final minute, Mance and Matej Mamic made sure of that. The night could not have been a bigger success for Cibona.
Thursday, January 30, 2003