With a defense that harkened to the best of its glory days, Maccabi reestablished its Top 16 push on Thursday by handing Group B co-leader Union Olimpija a 69-60 defeat in Tel Aviv. The game was balanced until the final minutes, when Maccabi, thanks to the key contributions from Nikola Vujcic and Gur Shelef, steered clear of danger. The game was so defensive-minded that neither team reached 12 points in either the second or third quarters. The win improves Maccabi's record to 5-7, good for a fifth-place with Montepaschi Siena. Should those two teams alone remain knotted there at the end of the season, two games from now, Maccabi would advance for having beaten Montepaschi twice. Union Olimpija, already qualified, dropped to 8-4 and a second-place tie with Tau Ceramica, though it would finish third under identical circumstances at the end of the season for having lost to the Spaniards twice. Vujcic led the winners with a huge double-double of 18 points and 12 rebounds. Quincy Lewis added 11 and Yoav Saffar contributed 10. For Union Olimpija, Goran Jurak led the way with 13 points and Vladimer Boisa bagged 12.
Head coach David Blatt opened the most important game for Maccabi this season with Lior Lubin at point guard, and he had 2 assists, one on a Yoav Saffar triple, to put Maccabi ahead at 7-2 in minute 3. Both defenses started strong though, and both teams had to move the ball. Olimpija found the measure of Maccabi's zone with a triple by Marino Bazdaric, his team's first, and then a quick fastbreak finished by Josko Poljak tied it 7-7. Maccabi had to rely on the efficiency of Vujcic under the boards, where he totally dominated the paint in the offensive end. The lack of concentration at some points caused turnovers by both sides, but neither team managed to pull away. In minute 7, the score was 18-13 after a three by Lewis, but Vladimer Boisa replied in the same way for 18-16. The teams found it easier to score as the minutes went by, the hosts through well-built plays and the guests through individual bursts. A layup by Lewis gave Maccabi the biggest lead of the quarter, 23-18, which Olimpija reduced by a point to 25-21 after 10 minutes.
Big defensive pressure by Olimpija made things difficult for Maccabi early in the second quarter and allowed the guests to rejoin the battle at 27-25. Maccabi coach David Blatt called a timeout to put some order in his offense. Boisa proved valuable for Olimpija on offense at the same time that Vujcic remained the safe bet for Maccabi in the paint. Lewis shot his way into double digits for a 29-25 Maccabi edge midway through the period, but an unbelievable triple by Vlatko Ilievski on the 24-second buzzer seemed to spur the guest. But the scoring would become scarce as the defenses tightened and the shooting percentages dropped. Both teams tried everything to break the walls built by the rival, from fast transitions to long plays. Olimpija was more effective now as Goran Jurak's 4 consecutive points gave the visitors their first three-point lead of the game, 29-32. Then, a last-second five-meter shot by Tal Burstein gave Maccabi a big boost going into the break with a sudden 33-32 lead.
After resumption it looked like Maccabi had found the weak point in Olimpija by bearing down on defense and looking for the quick passes on offense that would drive the guests crazy. Those two tactics forged a 7-0 run for a quick and impressive 40-32 Maccabi advantage. Olimpija, though, received Ilievski's contribution from mid-range like a heavenly gift to climb back to 40-36. Olimpija went back to its attempts at getting back into the game, little by little. Both teams were shooting below 40% still, but the guests dominated the offensive rebounds, which gave them second and even third chances to shoot. Still, the score would stay at 42-40. The game could not be more balanced. Ratko Varda jumped on court to make his Euroleague debut for Olimpija, scoring 1 of 2 attempts from the foul line to cut Maccabi's lead to 43-41 after 30 minutes.
The decisive period started with a technical foul called on Union Olimpija's bench for protesting a couple of calls, one of them the fifth foul by Stipe Modric. Maccabi only managed to take 1 point from the situation, and the scoreboard stood at 44-41 with 8 minutes left. Both teams insisted on shooting from the arc, but with Maccabi at 2-for-16 and Olimpija at 3-for-15 to that point, the defenses had other ideas. Vujcic appeared with a three-point play underneath that boosted the lead to 49-43, but in the following play, Lubin fouled out. Jurak made both the basket and the free throw on that play to put Olimpija within 49-46. Ilievski drilled a three over Maccabi's zone, but Vujcic replied strong in the paint, his seventh straight point making it 53-49. The fans at the Yad El Yiahu arena started to push hard, and with a three by Derrick Sharp followed by a big dunk by Marcus Goree, Maccabi had what seemed now a comfortable lead, 58-49. Maccabi added the final touch in the defensive end, never allowing Olimpija's shooters to stand open. Vujcic remained calm in the free throw line for all the decisive points until 63-56 with 1 minute and 20 seconds to go. Olimpija never gave up, but a key contribution from Gur Shelef in the last minute was decisive to leave Maccabi ahead for good.
Thursday, January 30, 2003
Eran Sela, Tel Aviv