Tau Ceramica trounced Aris TT Bank 90-74 on Wednesday night at the Fernando Buesa Arena in Vitoria, Spain, to remained undefeated in the Top 16 and clinch first place in Group E. Tau, which won its seventh straight home game, will have home-court advantage in the best-of-three Quarterfinal Playoffs, where it will face the team that finishes the Top 16 in second place in Group D. Meanwhile Aris, which dropped to 1-4 in the group, saw its last hopes of advancing to the next stage disappear. Aris shot well in the first half and behind Jeremiah Massey, went ahead 22-29 early in the second period. However the hosts rallied to take a 43-37 halftime lead and the advantage continued to grow throughout the second half as Tau made it look easy. Tiago Splitter led Tau with 18 points, Pablo Prigioni added 16 points, 4 assists and 4 steals, Igor Rakocevic returned from injury with 11 points and Gabe Muoneke had 10 off the bench. Meanwhile Aris, which was doomed by its 21 turnovers, was led by power forward Jeremiah Massey with 26 points, while Hanno Mottola added 12.
The defenses seemed to be on holiday as both teams showed a great performance in offense in the early going. Tau missed its first field goal attempt after two-and-a-half minutes, scoring 8 points during that period. Aris didn’t struggle either as Dimitris Tsaldaris and Mottola hit a triple and a pair of free throws, respectively, to stay close. The home team reacted after Georgios Kalaitzis made it a 1-point game with a jumper, using Mirza Teletovic as its main weapon. The Bosnian forward sank a triple and capped a fastbreak with a monster slma for a 13-7 lead. Two free throws by Splitter boosted the hosts to a 15-7 edge, but Aris didn’t panic and found good solutions with its inside players. Mottola hit back-to-back three pointers and Massey scored in the paint in transition to bring Aris within 20-19 entering in the last minute. Tau head coach Neven Spahija called for an urgent timeout, but Massey made a layup to give Aris its first lead with 30 seconds to go. Although Splitter answered with 2 free throws of his own, Bracey Wright nailed a nice three-pointer at the buzzer for a 22-24 Aris edge at the end of the first period.
Massey took over after the break, destroying Teletovic with 5 points in a row at the low post to extend the visitors’ margin to 22-29. Tau had trouble finding the required flow on offense. The drought came to an end thanks to Prigioni, who stole a ball and went for the layup to reduce the difference to 24-29, forcing Aris head coach Gordon Herbert to use a timeout. Prigioni kept rocking, as he nailed a corner three to make it a 2-point game, but even more important for the hosts was that they found the intensity needed to stop the inside power of Aris. Both teams decided to switch to zone defenses at that point, but Pete Mickeal and Reyshawn Terry exchanged triples to break the defenses at both ends pretty quickly. Prigioni tied the game with a layup on the offensive glass, starting a two-minute period in which both teams remained scoreless. It was Mickeal, with a short jumper, who broke the tie and put Tau in charge again with two minutes to go. Things got a bit worse for the visitors as their bench was called for a technical foul, which was exploited by Tau to widen the gap to 37-33. Prigioni, with his second three, closed the half with a 43-37 lead for the home team.
The second half got off to a quiet start with nearly two minutes going by before the first points were scored. Rakocevic and then Splitter broke the trend before Massey hit a triple to prevent the hosts from pulling away. Aris’s defense improved with increased intensity to slow down Tau’s ball circulation, but wasn’t enough to rally as the yellows were blind to the hosts’ full-court pressure. Rakocevic and Splitter combined again for 5 points in a row that gave Tau a double-digit margin, 53-40, midway through the third quarter. Aris tried to rally, but was stopped inside by Muoneke and Splitter. The Brazilian center hit twice from the free throw line for a game-high 15-point lead, 57-42, after 26 minutes, but the yellows were not dead yet. Darius Washington, Terry and Massey joined forces to spark a 0-7 run that made it an 8-point game, forcing Spahija to look for a change in team direction. Prigioni replaced Zoran Planinic, but the visitors remained hot, as Massey came up big against Tau’s frontcourt and brought Aris within 61-55 with a pair of powerful layups. Two free throws by Prigioni allowed Tau to keep a safe margin though, 63-55, at the end of the third period.
The hosts came out focused after the break scoring 7 straight points through baskets from Muoneke and Splitter and a three-pointer by Simas Jasaitis to stun Aris, which had been planning its comeback. The yellows remained scoreless for the first three minutes of the period, allowing Tau to amass a 15-point margin that seemed to be definitive. Even though Vladimer Boisa rose for a three-pointer, it was too late for rallying, as the hosts had their momentum already. Muoneke took advantage of the fact that the game was decided to take some shots and add easy points to his total, as Tau needed no more than a calm offense to keep the difference. With the outcome no longer in doubt, the hosts exploited Aris’s foul trouble to keep adding points, reaching a game-high 19-point lead, 88-69, with one minute to go. An acrobatic three-pointer by Terry and a nice layup by Massey prevented the local team from getting a 20-point margin, as a layup by Jasaitis closed the game with a comfortable 90-74 win that secured the first place of Group E.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008