There may only be five teams in the running, but the Group B race for the Top 16 seems to be getting tighter with each game. Ulker of Istanbul is once again in the thick of things with a thrilling 78-76 home win over visiting Opel Skyliners of Frankfurt. The victory guarantees Ulker (8-4) at least a share of third place with Skyliners (8-4), but if the two should end up tied, the German club would enjoy the point differential for having won by four when they first played in Germany. Both were tight thrillers, and the latest was decided when Harun Erdenay broke a 73-73 tie with a driving basket with just over a minute left. Miljan Goljovic, who would finish with 18 points, added one more basket for the winners, and top scorer Robert Stelmahers (21 points) a free throw in the final 15 seconds. All their efforts were needed to withstand Skyliners' comeback from 16 down in the first half behind 24 points by Marcus Goree and 18 by Pascal Roller. With the simultaneous victory by Barcelona at Zalgiris, both Ulker and Skyliners were still looking at a probably three-way race with Union Olimpija for the final two Top 16 berths in Group B.
The game started like an offensive fight as both teams found easy baskets on each other. Marcus Goree hit 2 straight three-pointers to give the visitors a five-point lead, 6-11, after 3 minutes. But just as quickly, Ulker took the control of the game with a suffocating zone pressure that so demoralized the visitors that the Turkish team took off on repeated and easy fastbreaks. They took the lead within two minutes on a Haluk Yildirim drive that made it 15-13, and then they continued on a 16-2 run that featured Goljovic, Yildirim and Roberts Stelmahers finishing off more and more fastbreaks. Soon the lead was at 31-15 with nine minutes to play, and only a final basket by Goree allowed Skyliners as close as 33-19 after 10 minutes were up. Goljovic was up to 14 points already for Ulker and Goree 10 for Skyliners.
The visitors tried two different guards in attempts to stop Ulker playmaker Robert Stelmahers, but both Pascal Roller (2) and Kai Nurnberger (3) encountered early foul problems by the middle of the second period. Despite good efforts from point guard Chad Austin and big man Robert Maras, the visitors could only cut slightly into Ulker's lead. Austin's early three-pointer got the deficit under 10 points, at 35-26, but then some turnovers by the German side helped Ulker boost it again 16 points, 46-30, on a drive by Harun Erdenay. Syliners woke up then: They had to. The defense held Ulker scoreless for nearly 5 minutes while Opel had 8 straight points between Goree, Virgil Stanescu and Pascal Roller to pull within 46-38. Goljovic then scored his only basket of the second quarter, so the half ended with Ulker still leading by double digits, 48-38.
Ulker started the third period as it had the others, going for a knockout punch. Two straight three-pointers by Stelmahers took the lead back up to 16 points, 54-38. But Skyliners responded in little more than a minute with Roller scoring on a three-point shot and a three-point play to drop the lead to where it was at the half, 10 points, 54-44. This was the first signal that Frankfurt could catch Ulker, which returned to the zone defense that had helped it establish big leads. This time Skyliners were ready, with Roller, Austin and Goree knocking down shot after shot. A Goree three-pointer in the 27th minute nearly completed the comeback at 58-56, but Yildirim came up with a three-point play to allow the home team to hold a 64-60 advantage headed into the final 10 minutes.
The last period was like a heavyweight prize fight. Skyliners never let Ulker escape, not even after Stelmahers hit a three-pointer for a 67-61. Kai Nurnberger answered that in kind, setting the tone until the end. Every time Ulker scored, Skyliners answered with the difference stuck at two or three points until, with just under 2 minutes left, two Roller foul shots tied the score at 73-73. Almost a minute passed before Erdenay slithered through the defense for the basket that put Ulker up 75-73. Gonlum took a decisive rebound at and then hit an outside shot for 77-73, but Goree raised up and banged in a three-pointer to pull his team within 77-76 with 15 seconds left. Two seconds later, Stelmahers missed 1 of 2 free throws, but on the ensuing inbounds play Goree committed a turnover that left the score where it was, 78-76, while Ulker successfully dribbled out the last 10 seconds.
Thursday, January 31, 2002