With the outcome of the first game still under official protest and judicial review, Tau Ceramica put Game 2 in its back pocket for insurance on Friday in as tense and thrilling a basketball battle as anyone could ask for. Tau beat AEK of Athens 67-70, a final score that reflected the premium put on every shot, rebound, even every pass. With 1.9 seconds left, AEK got the ball to its master shooter, Ibrahim Kutluay, who got off a quick game-tying three-point attempt, full of arc and style. But it glanced off the rim and that set Tau's players to hugging one another. They had another upset in Athens, officially their third since the start of the playoffs. Point guard Elmer Bennett (25 points), who led a scoring battle against Kutluay (22) all night, made the key insurance free throws that sealed the victory, but two of the key baskets in the last five minutes came off the hand of his running mate, Chris Corchiani. The series goes now to Vitoria, Spain, the home of Tau, for Game 3 next Wednesday.
That Tau was the better of two real gladiator teams was clear in the rebounding totals, a 36-31 edge for the visitors, including a 9 to 6advantage in the final quarter. For the second game in a row, the Tau frontline of Victor Alexander (14 points, 7 rebounds), Fabricio Oberto (8 and 7) and Luis Scola (6 and 8) outboarded the best rebounding team of the Euroleague playoffs on its own floor. (Shooting guard Laurent Foirests added 7 rebounds and played an outstanding defensive game.) And once again, that floor had a lot of bodies on it, as Tau scraped together various leads but couldn't put AEK away. Indeed, when Mikalis Kakiouzis drained a three-pointer from the corner with 26 seconds left to make it 68-67, another overtime became a distinct possibility. But Kakiouzis (11 points) missed from the top of the lane on the shot before Kutluay?s last attempts. AEK had its best late-game shooters get good looks at the basket, but couldn't put the ball down. It was that way all game.
Tau came out playing perfect: 2 fastbreaks, 3 layups, 4 of 5 field goals made, 6 rebounds to 1 for AEK, Bennett scoring, Alexander making steals, Oberto clearing the boards, etcetera. But that only got them to 8-0, because if AEK?s rebounding and offense showed up late, its defense and Ibrahim Kutluay were on time. The defense kept Tau's hot start from getting out of hand. Kutluay merely tried to repeat his Game 1 feat of 20 first-half points. He put AEK on the board with a three-point fastbreak play, then nailed back-to-back three-point shots to close the quarter with the deficit being chopped to 16-17. Vrbica Stefanov made AEK?s third three-pointer to tie the game 19-all early in the second quarter, which is also when forward Mikalis Kakiouzis entered the game for the first time. Another Kutluay three and a two-pointer inside by Kakiouzis suddenly had Tau ahead 24-19. But Bennett was still on the floor, and if Bennett was considered early in these playoffs not so aggressive offensively in road games, he put that notion to rest in what was left of the second quarter, starting with a three-point play breaking down the whole AEK defense, continuing with a few free throws, and ending with his own three-point shot, on what was just the second attempt for Tau in the first half. All that added up to a 38-33 halftime lead for Tau. Bennett had 18 points at that juncture, Kutluay 17 and Tau was leading the rebounding war 21-16.
When AEK rejoined the rebounding battle in the third quarter, however, the game got closer and closer, each shot packed with meaning. AEK had three rebounds on the same possession, which Betts finished with a fourth, a tip-in, the first two of six consecutive points he scored to cut Tau?s lead to 43-45. Meanwhile, Mindaugas Timinskas has scored all 7 of Tau's points in the half, but after a basket by Oberto, a three-pointer by Martin Muursepp and a drove by Stefanov put AEK ahead at 48-47. But Tau got baskets from Alexander and Bennett and 2 free throws from young Luis Scola to finish off the quarter with a 6-0 run and a 51-56 lead.
Neither team scored more than two unanswered points in the fourth quarter until two Alexander free throws and a jumper by Chris Corchiani, who didn't see action until late in the third quarter, put Tau ahead 6, at 58-64. But Dikoudis answered with two in a row inside (61-64) before Corchiani hit another soft jumper and Luis Scola answered a Stefanov outside shot with a jump hook in the lane, setting up Tau to survive a squeaker in the final two minutes
Friday, March 30, 2001