Tau Ceramica moved within one win of its fourth straight trip to the Final Four when it topped Partizan Igokea 74-66 in Game 1 of the teams' best-of-three Euroleague Basketball Quarterfinal Playoffs on Tuesday night at the Fernando Buesa Arena in Vitoria, Spain. Zoran Planinic scored 18 to lead Tau to its eighth straight home win. Tau can clinch a ticket to the Final Four in Madrid on Thursday if it beats Partizan in Game 2 in Belgrade. The visitors challenged from the very start and led 31-33 at halftime. However a big third quarter from Planinic and free throws from Tiago Splitter soon restored Tau’s lead. Partizan never quit and closed the gap to just 5 points with three minutes remaining, but after a Tau timeout, Igor Rakocevic drilled a clutch triple and Partizan never recovered. Rakocevic finished with 15 points and Splitter and Will McDonald posted 8 each. Dusan Kecman paced Partizan with 13, Nikola Pekovic added 12 and Novica Velickovic and Milt Palacio scored 10 points apiece.
Tau stormed the court playing tough defense that prevented Partizan from scoring for a full two minutes. Meanwhile, McDonald and Planinic made easy layups off offensive rebounds to put Tau ahead 4-0. Partizan did not panic and managed to tie a minute later on a basket-plus-free throw by Kecman. The pace slowed a bit as both squads struggled to score, before Rakocevic, who collected 4 points in a row, returned the lead to Tau. Planinic followed him with a triple that extended the margin to 11-6 midway through the first quarter. Partizan reacted quickly, choosing to feed Slavko Vranes in the paint and looking for penetration from its perimeter players. Tau couldn’t adjust in time, as Pekovic capped a 2-8 run with his first basket, good for the first Partizan lead, 13-14 after 9 minutes. Planinic hit a layup entering the last minute, as the third foul on Tripkovic, while a technical foul on Partizan head coach Dusan Vujosevic allowed Tau to raise 3 more points from the free throw line before Palacio's buzzer-beater two-pointer left an 18-16 scoreboard after 10 minutes.
Pekovic needed little time in the second quarter to tie the game again and force Splitter's second foul. James Singleton answered with a monster two-handed dunk, but Pekovic kept rocking inside and drew Splitter's third foul, sending him to the bench. Differences stayed at a minimum, with both teams responding to any move by the other. The lead changed on every offense, making for a great show. A layup by McDonald gave Tau a small margin, 28-25, after 17 minutes, but Partizan answered quickly with a three-pointer by Tepic. Another shot from downtown was made by Singleton, but Velickovic answered with his own. The shooting spree left a 31-31 tie two minutes before halftime. The game turned into a defensive battle at that point, with every player giving his best and saving no energies. No one scored until Milenko Tepic took advantage of a mismatch to nail a short jumper with 10 seconds left, letting Partizan take a 31-33 edge at halftime.
Planinic hit a three on the first Tau attack, but Partizan reacted quickly as Tepic scored a free throw followed by a triple by Velickovic to keep a small advantage. The home team found Pete Mickeal, who managed to tie the game with 4 points in a row, but the joy didn’t last for long as Velickovic hit a layup right after that to preserve Partizan’s lead. Then it was Planinic’s turn. The guard hit a three-pointer and a jumper in the corner to lead a 7-0 run that stunned Partizan and forced an urgent time out with Tau up 45-40 midway through the period. The stoppage didn’t fix anything for the guests at first as Planinic increased the gap with another triple. But Partizan hadn’t given up. Uros Trikpovic showed up for his first triple and Palacio scored a layup to cut the gap to 48-45. The difference remained steady until Partizan committed a pair of turnovers entering the last minute that gave Tau some room. Splitter made 4 free throws to give the hosts a promising lead and, after Tripkovic hit a triple from the corner, Splitter scored again from the line to close the third period with a 56-50 Tau edge.
Partizan started the last period playing with Tepic at point guard and having one main target on offense: to feed Pekovic in the low-post against Singleton. Pekovic drew two fouls and scored a pair of free throws, but Tau found Splitter and Pablo Prigioni on offense to stay ahead, 63-54, after a three-pointer by the playmaker with seven minutes to go. Kecman came to the rescue with a huge three, but the worst news for the guest came with the fourth foul of Pekovic, which forced Vujosevic to replace him with Vranes with six minutes to play. Rakocevic made it an 8-point game with a short jumper, but problems came for Tau as well and it was quick; Splitter and McDonald committed their respective four fouls in less than 20 seconds, putting Tau back in deep trouble midway through the last quarter. Rakocevic showed up again to give the hosts a double-digit margin from the free-throw line, enough to prevent Partizan from rallying. But Pekovic was patient, and found the right moment to take advantage of Tau’s foul trouble and get his team within 67-62 with three minutes remaining. Tau head coach Neven Spahija called for a timeout after which Rakocevic found the perfect screen to hit a key three-pointer that put a lot of pressure on the guests. Velickovic reduced the margin with a nice basket off the glass and Pekovic came up big on defense to prevent Splitter from scoring twice. Partizan didn’t take advantage of that, however, as it missed consecutive offenses and allowed Tau reach the last minute-and-a-half leading 72-64. Although Kecman scored from the free throw line, it was Rakocevic who killed Partizan’s hopes with a layup to secure the home win.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008