With its back to the wall and most of its backcourt unable to walk, Unicaja of Malaga pulled off what is arguably the biggest upset of the season, stopping Maccabi 86-89 in overtime at Tel Aviv on Thursday to turn Group B on its head. The victory very much saved Unicaja in this wacky group, which now sees Unicaja, Maccabi, Panathinaikos and Montepaschi Siena all tied at 2-2 for third place behind undefeated Tau and Union Olimpija (3-1). The game entered the last minutes with total balance but a three by Louis Bullock gave some air for the Spaniards, who managed to maintain the lead, together with not much luck for Maccabi from the long range, until a final free throw by Ademola Okulaja gave the final advantage that put the guests in a safe place. Bullock and Milan Gurovic led for Unicaja with 22 points each and Okulaja added 13. For Maccabi, Quincy Lewis nailed 22, Nikola Vujcic 18 and Tal Burstein 14.
Unicaja played without three injured contributors in Roger Esteller, Berni Rodriguez and Moustapha Sonko, but was not affraid at all during the first quarter in front of 10,000 fans at Yad Elyiahu Arena, not to mention one of the hottest teams in Europe, not even after Maccabi started great, leaing 10-2 after 4 minutes. The Spanish challengers came back using their own tempo, drawing fouls and getting good free throw shooting from Milan Guruvic and Carlos Cabezas to take a 10-12 lead. On the other side, Marcus Goree missed from the line, and Unicaja took advantage. Cabezes made it 19-17 for Unicaja with a fastbreak and Yoav Saffar equalized the result to 19-19 from a good pass of Nikola Vujcic to cement the tie after the first 10 minutes.
Bullock got in the game already on fire in second quarter, scoring 5 straight points and simply putting Maccabi's point guard, Beno Udrih, behind him. Unicaja led 26-30 after 15 minutes as big man Fredric Weiss held Maccabi's inside scorers down. Malaga scored again and again from the foul line and tried to slow the game and take Maccabi out of its usual quick tempo. An important offensive rebound by Weiss and an assist by Bullock to Stephane Risacher was good for the rare four-points - a three-point shot plus the free throw - and a convincing 28-36 lead for the Spaniards, 3 minutes before halftime. Maccabi's defense improved enough to cut the margin to 31-36, but an three-point shot drained by Okulaja made it 31-39. Burstein replied with his own three and Goree turned a steal into three points to bring Maccaba back to within 37-39. Two great clutch shots by Gurovic and Bullock gave Unicja the momentum again, not to mention a 45-37 lead at halftime.
Maccabi opens the second half without Udrih, who had hurt his ankle late in the second quarter and never did return to the court. Lior Lubin took his place, while Bullock's triple put Unicaja ahead 42-50. Lubin had his effect, too, stealing 2 straight balls and passing for 3 assists before his 2 free throws brought Maccabi within 49-52. Bullock stepped up again and shot good from the arc for 51-55. Gurovic and Derrick Sharp traded triples, then Risacher and Nikola Vujcic did so in the paint before a great drive by Lubin evened the score, 62-62, to end the third quarter.
Lubin became the barometer of Maccabi, opening the fourth quarter with an air ball and his fourth foul in less then 10 minutes. But Quincy Lewis gave Maccabi a lead finally, at 65-62. Just as quick, however, a pair of drives by Cabezas turned the score to Unicaja's side, 65-66. With almost 6 minutes left, Maccabi switched to a short lineup due to Vujcic's fourth foul, with Yoav Saffar at center. Gurovic soon gave Unicaja the lead, 70-67, then after he had made 1 of 2 free throws, Lewis drilled a long one for three points and a 71-70 Maccabi lead. Missed threes by Bullock and Burstein led to a Goree tip-in and a 73-70 Maccabi lead, after which Adam Wojcik repeated the exact play for Unicaja. Just 36 seconds remained now as Bullock scored 1 of 2 free throws, and then Tal Burstein nailed great mid-range shot that put Maccabi ahead 75-73 with 24 seconds left. Unicaja got the ball to Cabezas for a wide open three, and though he missed, Gurovic got the rebound and was fouled with just seven-tenths of a second to go. Gurovich went to the line and nailed both shots, sending the game into overtime at 75-75.
In the extra period, Maccabi started strong with Burstein three-pointer, but soon both Sharp and Lubin fouled out, forcing David Blatt to send teenager Yotam Halperin on-court at money time. Bullock scored 2 from the foul line to tie 81-81 and then a three that put the guest ahead. Gurovic boosted the lead to 82-86 from the foul line with 1:29 remaining. Okulaja now rebounded a pair of Bullock misses and made 1 of 2 free throws as a result. With 15 seconds left, Vujcic scored and Unicaja failed to inbound the ball. Down 84-87, Maccabi got Vujcic open for a three, but he missed and Gurovic sealed the victory at the foul line 11.3 seconds from the finish. Gur Shelef would make a layup for Maccabi, and then the locals got a steal on the press, but a three-point attempt to tie by Burstein missed and Unicaja had a great overtime upset, 89-86.
Thursday, October 31, 2002