CSKA Moscow was on the very brink of qualification to the Final Four after coming back from big early deficits to smother visiting Efes Pilsen 66-54 in their showdown for first place in Group D on Wednesday. CSKA had to wait for the result of Unicaja-Cibona in Spain later Wednesday to know if it would be among the first Final Four qualifiers, but all in all, its chances looked great. A Cibona loss would put CSKA through even before those two teams meet in the finale in Zagreb next week. Even a Cibona victory against Unicaja might require it to practically blow out CSKA in order to deny the Russians the Final Four. If any team looked like it might steal something from CSKA, it was Efes as it led by double digits in the first quarter. But for 25 minutes starting with the second quarter, CSKA's defense held the Turkish champs to just 24 points, enough to win the game going away. Teenage forward Sergei Monya ignited CSKA's turnaround in the second quarter, when he scored all 10 of his points. Victor Alexander finished the job from there with 18 points and 14 rebounds. J.R. Holden added 12 points and Teodoros Papaloukas 8 assists for the winners. Antonio Granger led Efes with 22 points, 14 in the first 10 minutes and the rest in the last 5, by which time CSKA was in full control. Marcus Brown added 16 points, Kaspars Kambala 13 and 11 rebounds.
Efes shocked CSKA and its fans in the game's first 5 minutes. A pair of three-pointers and an inside drive by Granger sent Efes flying to a 3-12 lead after 4 minutes, 25 seconds. The Efes defense was encouraging early shots by CSKA and vacuuming all the rebounds. Holden stopped the slide for cska, but Brown answered with a dunk as the Efes lead hit 5-14. Songaila's first basket and a pair of Holden free throws seemed to steady CSKA at 9-14, but the hosts had no answer for Granger yet. He drilled his third triple to make it 9-17. Alexander now spoke up for CSKA with his first basket after 4 misses, and after more than a minute of scoring silence, his second jumper from the corner made it 13-17. But on the counterattack, Granger was ready with his fourth three-pointer of the quarter, good enough to give Efes a healthy 13-20 lead after 10 minutes. Granger had 14 of the guests' points.
Monya was the spark that put CSKA back in the picture early in the second quarter. He started the comeback with a triple and a dunk sandwiched around a basket by Songaila. Reserve point guard Teodoros Papaloukas put a 22-22 tie on the scoreboard and Monya did the honors of giving CSKA its first lead of the game with a free throw halfway through the quarter. Efes went 5 minutes without a field goal, until Jurica Golemac, in for the injured Kaya Peker at power forward, took back the lead. But Monya, who was also stopping Granger cold, answered for CSKA with a pair of free throws. Sergei Panov's layup threatened to send CSKA well ahead, but Brown stepped up with a three-pointer to knot the scoreboard, 27-27, then drove for the go-ahead layup. Coming out of a CSKA timout, Monya climbed to 10 points with free throws that made it 29-29, before Panov put the locals ahead with a layup in the final minute. Ender Arslan got a point back for Efes from the foul line, but Alexander dropped a jumper on the last possession to send CSKA to the lockers ahead 33-30.
Holden opened the second half with a three-pointer for CSKA's highest lead, 36-30, but it would soon go higher. The second of 2 jump shots by Alexander put the hosts ahead 42-35 before Kambala hit his second basket of the quarter for Efes. The battle was centered inside, and Alexander hit another of his sweet midrange shots for 44-37 as CSKA threatened to pull away. Alexander stole the next ball, but missed his shot on offense, then Kambala came back and stuck one to make it 44-39. The fates of their teams were resting, for the moment, on the duel between Alexander and Kambala in the paint. As the quarter wound to a close, tensions rose with an exchange of steals, by Mony and Kerem Tunceri, a block by Alexander against Kambala, and missed triples by Holden and Tunceri. The Moscow fans got just what they were hoping for, however, when Nikos Hatzivrettas rose up and buried a three-pointer in the final minute. When Granger missed his try from the arc at the other end, the momentum all belonged to CSKA at 47-39 after 30 minutes.
Brown and Alexander traded baskets to open the final quarter. Holden got to the line on a foul by Brown, however, and gave CSKA the first double-digit lead, 51-41. Efes needed to make up 10 points in 8 minutes, but had scored only 21 total in the previous 22 minutes, since the end of the first quarter. Kambala tried a three and missed but picked up a point at the foul line afterwards and 2 more on an inside basket to make it 44-51. After a CSKA timeout, 2 minutes' worth of missed shots heightened the suspense until - who else? - Alexander sank a new jumper. The CSKA lead was at 53-44 with 5 minutes to play. When Holden followed that with a triple, the Moscow crowd could breathe easier. Granger returned to view with 5 quick points to cut the deficit to 58-49, but less than 3 minutes remained now. He would add another triple, his sixth of the game, just before the final minute, but CSKA was still up 60-52. CSKA was not going to collapse now and the fans in Moscow could make plans to stay up late on Wednesday to see if the qualification for the Final Four might be in hand already.
Wednesday, April 9, 2003