Zalgiris Kaunas added some extra thrills to the Top 16 race in Group B with a huge 88-67 home win over already-qualified Tau Ceramica on Thursday. A big performance from the three-point line by the hosts (11 of 20) kept Tau from threatening Zalgiris down the stretch. As a result, Zalgiris (5-8) will now meet Maccabi for the last game of the regular season in Tel Aviv with a chance to make the Top 16 should it win. Tau dropped to 8-5 and fell to third place in Group B. Former Tau player Mindaugas Timinskas was the scoring hero for Zalgiris with 18 points, including 3 of 4 three-pointers. He was joined by Tanoka Beard with his second double-double in as many games, 17 points and 13 rebounds. Darius Salenga also bagged 14 points, including 4 three-pointers, and Ed Cota nailed 12 more. Luis Scola paced Tau with 16 points, Andres Nocioni added 12 and newcomer Art Long 10.
Some pregame machinations added to the suspense in Kaunas. A day before tipoff, Tau registered its old leader, point guard Elmer Bennett, and a newly-signed center, Art Long, even as Zalgiris medical staff decided that MVP candidate Kornel David could return from injury. Both David and Long were on the floor as starters. Though Bennett was not on the ball yet, Tau started the game in its usual manner, which is to say imposing a high tempo based on good defense and quick ball circulation. Zalgiris starts defending in a zone, but then accepted the guests' challenge and joined the pace, with better man-to-man defense than on many previous occasions. Zalgiris jumped ahead 5-0, but Sergi Vidal with a three and Luis Scola with a dunk tied things immediately. Tanoka Beard started well for Zalgiris, too, with 5 points on the offensive end, and then a three-point play by Timinskas put the locals ahead 13-7. Andres Nocioni then replaced Scola, who had scored 5 of Tau's points. Long now showed his stuff by scoring 6 himself midway through the quarter, by which time Vidal had hit another triple. Still Zalgiris maintained a 19-15 lead. When Timinskas rifled in a shot from downtown, the lead ticked up to 22-17. Laurent Foirest and David traded layups, and long rejected a shot by Saulius Stombergas, but after the ensuing inbound and shot, Gintaras Einikis tapped in the ball for a 26-19 Zalgiris edge after 10 minutes.
Bennett appeared on-court for the first time this season to start the second quarter, but missed his first shot. Long and Beard answered each other's basket and Nocioni struck from downtown as Tau got within 28-24. Giedrius Gustas entered and immediately got three points back with one shot for Zalgiris, then his teammate Dainius Salenga did the same, and suddenly Zalgiris had jumped to a 10-point lead, 34-24. Tau also could score in bunches, however, as Nocioni and Scola hit baskets in a 0-6 response to make it 34-40. Timinskas joined the fray with a three-pointer and a reverse layup, followed by Ed Cota's fastbreak finish, but Leandro Palladino calmed down the Kaunas fans a little it with a three-pointer. Cota and Scola gave their teams one more basket each before the half ended with Zalgiris holding a 43-35 lead. The former Tau player, Timinskas, was leading Zalgiris with 13 points and 7 rebounds at halftime, while Scola and Long paced the visitors with 8 points each.
Tau came out punching after the break, with Nocioni amassing 6 quick points and Bennett adding a three-pointer. But Zalgiris was ready with points of its own as Timinskis poured in a couple layups, Cota and Beard one each. Tau kept up the intensity with a Scola layup to make it 49-44. Beard answered with a jumper and a dunk, then Stombergas stepped up and buried his first from downtown to recover the 10-point lead, 56-46. Salenga increased the Zalgiris run to 8-0, 59-46. Only Scola could score on a reverse over a couple tense minutes, but the lull didn't last. Timinskas, unstoppable tonight, put down another three, but Nocioni matched him to keep Tau within 11 points, a margin that held at 64-53 after 30 minutes.
The pivotal fourth quarter opened just as Zalgiris would have ordered it. Beard popped a jumper and David adds 2 free throws for the game's biggest lead to that point, 68-53. Tau went without points for 3 minutes until Palladino scored, but Salenga went the other way and nailed a triple. Palladino answered in kind, but Salenga had the last word their conversation with another three-pointer. Zalgiris was showing no fatigue and still playing great, and as evidence Salenga finished an alley-oop for a 76-59 lead with less than 5 minutes left. Within the next 2 minutes, Einikis and Stombergas added triples to boost the lead out of reach at 82-63. The deed was done. The Zalgiris bid to make the Top 16 after coming out of a last-place tie at midseason was one step closer to reality.
Thursday, February 6, 2003