Barcelona of Spain kepts up its relentless momentum despite a two-week break that saw one of its stars injured when it doused Zalgiris 73-92 on the road in Lithuania on Thursday. The victory amounted to perhaps the most important step toward the Top 16. At worst, Barcelona now sits alone in second place in Group B with a 9-3 record. Even though missing their injured rocket-guard Juan Carlos Navarro, Barca was able to set a tempo that was a little too quick for the hosts, consistently creating advantageous situations that led to easy baskets. Among those who created those baskets, Alain Digbeu led the way with 17 points, Sarunas Jasikevicius added 15 (and 8 assists), Efthimious Rentzias 13 and Rodrigo De la Fuente 12. Zalgiris (2-10) kept up to the Barca tempo throughout the first half, but started flagging after the break when the fatigue started to take its toll in missed easy shots and turnovers as Barca was still speeding up. Donatas Slanina's 17 points and Tomas Masiulis' 10 rebounds could not help the hosts enough to avoid another loss.
Both of Barcelona's Lithuanians, Jasikevicius and Karnisovas, started the game showing they knew the Kaunas floor, combining for 6 points. But Ginevicius with a couple of steals did not allow the visitors to take off just yet. Okulaja ripped off 6 points in a row but Zalgiris stayed alive at 12-14. Slanina came on for Zalgaris and immediately hit for three, but a Jasikevicus steal leading to an Alain Digbeu dunk made it 15-18 after 7 minutes. Slanina hit another swish from downtown, Salenga added foul shots and suddenly Zalgiris had the lead at 20-18. The final shot of the quarter came from one of the visiting Lithuanians, however, a Jasikevicius three that established a one-point edge, 24-25, for Barcelona.
Aito Reneses replaced Jaiskevicius with Nacho Rodriguez to give Barcelona more speed. With Rentzias becoming the protagonist, only a perfect Slanina (3-for-3 from three and a two-pointer) kept Zalgiris alive at 32-34, but Barcelona consistently rotated its players and kept control of the tempo. Woodberry quickly scored and then grabbed a steal and helped Zalgiris keep pace, 38-38. After a couple of good plays by Tomas Masiulis, the home team regained the advantage, 41-40. However, Masiulis then missed three straight free throws and just as suddenly as Zalgiris had taken the lead, Barcelona came right back on a couple of Digbeu alley-oops to a slim one point lead, 43-44, going into halftime.
Barcelona started the third period with a 6-2 run. The visitors were already shooting much better from inside the arc (75% to Zalgiris' 48%) and with their quick ball rotation they produced a number of open opportunities. Just as Barca started to pull away, 49-55, Zalgiris coach Argirdas Brazys wisely called a timeout. It helped for a while, but Rodrigo De la Fuente, after several great assists by Jasikevicius, punished the hosts with six consecutive points, and increased the margin to 53-63. With a secure lead, Aito gave recently acquired Anderson Varejao a try for the first time to give him valuable experience in Euroleague competition. Zalgiris changed up its game plan and attempted a zone defense, but it was no remedy against the quick Catalans. Jasikevicius hit a couple of threes, and the teams entered the final period at 59-72.
Opening with a 5-0 burst, Zalgiris somewhat reduced the gap, to 64-72, but immediately committed a couple of easy turnovers to undermine its chances. Karnisovas and Digbeu restored the plus-13 margin and it wass evident that the Zalgiris players were too tired, missing the easiest shots, whereas Barca continued at the same pace, further increasing the margin, to 64-80 with 5 minutes to go. The game was already over, and the only special event left were the first two points in Europe by Varejao, helping Barca win in great style, 92-72.
Thursday, January 31, 2002
Arunas Pakula, Kaunas