Though it could not bathe in the adoration of 10,000 fans in Tel Aviv, Maccabi made enough of a home in Thessaloniki, Greece on Thursday night to keep its Final Four hopes alive while ending those of Virtus Bologna with a 98-71 blowout. Though its home game was displaced from Tel Aviv due to the conflict in the Middle East, Maccabi looked good from the start, though it let Virtus come back after a couple big early deficits. After halftime, that trend changed and Maccabi's leads kept growing until it had a 3-1 record and solid hold on second place in Group G. Now, the race for the Final Four is down to Benetton (3-0) and Maccabi, who play each other in the next game, April 10. Nikola Vujcic led five Maccabi scorers in double figures with 22 points. Beno Udrih added 15 points for the winners, David Bluthenthal 14, Derrick Sharp 11 and Marcus Goree 10. For Virtus, Mladen Sekularac put up 19 points, Dejan Koturovic 16 and Marco Belinelli 12.
Gur Shelef scored 5 quick points as Maccabi took a 9-2 lead after 3 minutes. With an 8,000-seat arena almost empty in Thessaloniki and the Virtus defense showing early lapses, Maccabi showed all signs of wanting to forge an easy win. But that was not to be. Virtus stayed close as Dejan Koturovic started scoring inside and Ruslan Avleev outside. Eventually, the Italians completed a 7-14 run by tying the game 16-16 with a three-pointer by German Scarone. Maccabi head coach David Blatt sent in Lior Lubin for his first Top 16 appearance and the backup point guard thanked him with a three-pointer, a steal from Scarone and a great assist to David Bluthenthal. That splurge amounted to an 11-0 run and put Maccabi ahead by as many points, 27-16, after 10 minutes.
If it looked again like Maccabi was in total control, the Virtus sharpshooters would soon prove otherwise. But first, Maccabi big men Nikola Vujcic and Marcus Goree scored quite easily under the basket at the other end, taking advantage of the absences of Matjaz Smodis and Alessandro Frosini for Virtus. Maccabi could do no wrong as the lead swelled to 38-21, and Virtus coach Valerio Bianchini responded by sending in most of his bench players. Surprise, surprise, from that point on, it was Virtus who did no wrong. The Italians ran off an 8-18 run, getting a lot of energy and three-point shots from guys like Avleev, Mladen Sekularac, Marco Belinelli and Yannick Gagneur. Virtus didn't stop until it had 8 three-pointers for the half, and it was only with Bluthenthal's buzzer-beater that Maccabi could still claim a comfortable lead, 46-39, at the break.
Maccabi wasn't about to risk its lead any longer and turned up the defensive heat to start the second half. As a result, Virtus was unable to score for 4 minutes as Charlie Bell and Derrick Dial were still sitting on the bench. This time, however, the young Virtus subs on the court could not repeat their good minutes from the second quarter. Tal Burstein scored his first basket for Maccabi in the 25th minute, but his slow day mattered little as long as he and his teammates were so strong on the defensive end. Under the basket, too, Maccabi was still dominant as the 20th point from Vujcic pushed the lead into double digits again at 57-45. Belinelli would then trigger a 2-7 run that brough Virtus as close as 59-52, but Beno Udrih stepped up with an important three-pointer and Maccabi continued to a 66-54 after 30 minutes.
Virtus would not see the hope of even a single-digit deficit again in the game. Maccabi started the fourth quarter with a 9-0 run that made it quite clear that Virtus was not going back to the Final Four this year. The margin kept on getting bigger with a good game for Udrih among all other Maccabi guards. The lead didn't stop growing until 98-71 at the end, the biggest lead of all 40 minutes. The extra points could come in handy if Maccabi can manage to pass over Benetton when they play on April 10 by at least the 13 points with which the Italian team won their first game. For now, however, Maccabi was right where it needed to be after four games in the Top 16.
Thursday, March 27, 2003
Eran Sela, Thessaloniki, Greece