One dream was realized and another put on hold Thursday as Unicaja rallied for a 73-79 road win at Montepaschi Siena in Group B. The victory and its new 7-5 record vaulted Unicaja into the Top 16, the first time the club has made it that far in Europe's main competition. Euroleague newcomer Montepaschi, meanwhile, fell to 5-7 and likely might have to win its final two games to avoid elimination. Louis Bullock was incredible for the winners in the crucial second half, when he collected 18 of his 24 points. He was clearly the match-winner for Unicaja, but he was helped strongly by Berni Rodriguez and Ademola Okulaja with 15 points apiece. Stephane Risacher added 13 points and unwritten but excellent defense. For Montepaschi, Vrbica Stefanov drilled 21 points. Alphonso Ford followed with 19 points and Mirsad Turkcan added a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Unicaja came on court with its usual aggressive defense on the perimeter and in the paint, with Charles Kornegay in a man-to-man duel against Roberto Chiacig, built on a hard fight for the low post position. The visitors' defense was a factor from the earliest minutes. Unicaja, in fact, made simple ball circulation difficult for Siena. In the offensive end, the visitors zoomed the ball into the hands of Risacher. He opened the match with a strong slam dunk and by the end of the first quarter had hit 8 points and pulled 3 rebounds. But Montepaschi was able to stay in the match at 15-18 after 10 minutes thanks to 7 points from Ford.
Bullock made his first steps off the bench count with 5 points on a pair of sweet jumpers. Montepaschi upped the pace behind Stefanov high rhythm. He quickly climbed to 8 points, while Cal Bowdler replaced Chiacig and had a an impact with his good defense and 4 points. But there were no runs. Neither Unicaja nor Montepaschi found a good lead, which left the match in close balance. To that point, Montepaschi had only made 25% from the 6.25 line and Unicaja 38%, but now came a turnaround. Triples from Mindaugas Zukauskas and Stefanov late in the second quarter were followed by a dunk from Chiacig. It was not enough to sprint away, but Montepaschi was able to make it into the lockeroom with a 39-36 lead. Stefanov had 11 points by then on 5-for-6 shooting, while Ademola Okulaja was leading Unicaja with 9 points.
This was the crucial match of the season for both teams and the pressure started to show after halftime. Montepaschi was able to extend its lead to 6 points, 50-44, in the first half of the quarter, thanks mainly to good fastbreak opportunities. Meanwhile, Risacher was benched for Unicaja after reacting strongly to a pair of whistles against him. Soon after, Turkcan caught an elbow to the face and left the court pouring blood from his nose. While he was gone from the court getting medical treatment to stop the bleeding, Unicaja started to turn the game around. Bullock started getting loose whether driving the baseline or from the top. When Montepaschi paid more attention to him, he passed to Okulaja and Kornegay. While Unicaja was in a good moment, Montepaschi lost its way to the basket. Unicaja not only recoverd the entire gap, but climbed to a 55-60 lead. Then, on the last play of the quarter, Rodriguez threw up a prayer from the middle of the court, and it fell, adding 3 precious points to the scoreboard that now read 55-63.
The last period started with Montepaschi 8 behind, but that soon became a 13-point gap, 55-68, as Rodriguez buried another triple and Bullock shot as if hypnotized. Montepaschi tried to react, but Bullock wanted to leave his signature on the match and kept raining on the home team. With 5 minutes to go, Unicaja was holding a 63-70 advantage. Montepaschi went hard now to the battle, but was it too late? Late was not a word in Montepaschi's dictionary tonight. The hosts wanted the smoking hand of Ford on every ball. The resurrection seemed possible when Montepaschi got within 69-72 on another feathered shot by Ford. But then Risacher reappeared on the wing for a three-pointer worth its weight in gold to Unicaja. Bullock closed the game with an amazing rainbow over Chiacig's hands. Unicaja was in the Top 16 and Siena would have to wait to find out if it could join the party, too.
Wednesday, January 29, 2003