Unicaja Malaga got its first win in the Top 16 on Wednesday, 95-87, at the expense of the Final Four hopes of visiting Cibona VIP. Cibona (2-3) saw its Final Four options vanish hours after CSKA (4-1) had taken over first place in Group D by beating Efes Pilsen (3-2) in Moscow. As such, CSKA will finish first and represent Group D at the Final Four in Barcelona, May 9 to 11. Only Efes can tie CSKA in the final week of the Top 16, and the Russians own tiebreak advantages against the Turks. The win improved Unicaja's record to 1-4, while Cibona dropped to 2-3 for third place. A high-scoring game seemed to Cibona's liking, but in the end, Unicaja kept pouring on the points to give the home fans a taste of Top 16 victory. Milan Gurovic led the winners with 26 points including 11 of 12 free throws. Roger Esteller added 19 points, Mous Sonko 16, Louis Bullock 12 and Berni Rodriguez 10. For Cibona, Darren McLinton led the way with 25 points, including 5 of 8 triples while Niksa Prkacin had 17, Marijan Mance 12 and Slaven Rimac 11.
Despite a rare non-sellout in Malaga at Martin Carpena Arena, the game started with a high-scoring rhythm. Roger Esteller hit the first basket of the night for the hosts, and from there, baskets poured in for both sides. Cibona tried a zone defense early in the game, as Slaven Rimac's hit from downtown gave a 2-7 lead to the guests. Niksa Prkacin was the alternative for Cibona in the paint, but there was little down time as Esteller put back an offensive rebound for Unicaja, and Rimac replied with a spectacular layup for a 6-11 Cibona lead. At that point, Stephane Risacher took up the scoring load for the hosts, but soon, coach Boza Maljkovic changed him to put Gurovic on court. If the first impression of the change might have been doubtful, Maljkovic proved correct when Gurovic quickly hit 6 straight points, including a jumper from the side. Cibona only found reply from Prkacin, but not enough to avoid Unicaja taking a 23-22 advantage after 10 minutes.
The second quarter was a complete scoring festival from the three-point line. McLinton stepped on court for Cibona with Barisa Krasic and the two proceeded to hit most of the points of their team in the period. Unicaja changed to a zone defense to force the guests to shoot from outside. Cibona obliged, Krasic with a three that put his team ahead 23-29. It was then that Bullock decided to join the party with his own downtown strike. Krasic insisted, and Bullock had no problem taking his turn again from the arc as the scoreboard read 31-34. The head-to-head duels changed protagonists against relaxed defenses which allowed easy baskets. McLinton and Gurovic came next, the former with some triples and a couple of good crossover moves. By halftime, he had scored 14 points. Meanwhile, Gurovic looked like he was trying to score enough to make up for missing the first game against Cibona in Croatia. Unicaja insisted on triples, but they wouldn't go in, and Gurovic showed his repertoire of movements in the paint to dunk for 38-41. McLinton's next triple made it 41-46. A three-point play by Mous Sonko got Unicaja closer. The period ended with two more threes, for Gurovic and Krasic, the latter's third in four attempts, which appropriately tied it 49-49 at the break.
The second half was not as fast as the first one in any aspect. The game got tougher and that impeded plays from flowing as easily as in the first two quarters. Esteller emerged as the main offensive option for Unicaja, playing his best game since he was back to action after a long injury that made him miss the first part of the season. His 5 straight points put Unicaja ahead 62-59. Davor Kus replied with a bomb for downtown for 62-62. Cibona didn't have McLinton on court, but Unicaja didn't manage to pull away. Prkacin appeared again from under the boards to hit some key plays that maintained Cibona's chances. At 66-66, McLinton came back on court, but Unicaja players had learned their lesson and didn't let him find the space to breathe. Esteller added another three-point play for a 69-67 Unicaja advantage, then 2 more free throws before the end of the period. It was McLinton though, who scored the last points for a 71-71 tie after 30 minutes.
The last quarter was filled with emotion until the last seconds. Cibona found more contribution from the rest of players, while for Unicaja, Gurovic hit a triple for 78-75. With his team down 83-77 and 6 minutes to go, McLinton re-appeared once again to give his team the last chance to maintain its Final Four options. But Unicaja knew its first Top 16 win was near, and never let go of the lead. In fact, the hosts never allowed Cibona to get closer than 4 points, 88-84, after McLinton's three. Esteller kept his head cold from the free throw line, and Gurivic added a jumper for 91-84, but McLinton was always there from downtown, cutting the difference to 91-87. One of Cibona's clutch players, Rimac, was fouled out with less than 1 minute to go, and Sonko and Gurovic managed to secure the win from the free throw line, 95-87. That allowed the fans in Malaga enjoy the first Top 16 win, and deprived Cibona of any option to be in Barcelona in May since CSKA had beat Efes earlier in the evening.
Wednesday, April 9, 2003