A Group B team bent on returning to the top of the Euroleague no matter what it takes put a Final Four regular in hot water as Tau Ceramica came back from 15 points behind to beat Maccabi 69-72 in Tel Aviv on Thursday. The victory boosted Tau to 6-2 and preserved for it a first-place tie with Union Olimpija. But perhaps more newsworthy was Maccabi's fall to 3-5 and sixth place despite playing at home and needing the victory much more than Tau. Maccabi had been in charge up through halftime, but could not score in the final two quarters. Ironically enough, Hanno Mottola scored 16 points to lead Tau in his last game with the team. He was the same player who scored 31 and was weekly MVP when Tau started the season with a home win against Maccabi. Mottola's departure was announced by coach Dusko Ivanovic earlier this week, even as Tau lost another power forward, Luis Scola, to injury. Jerome Allen and Jose Calderon added 12 points each for the winners and Rashard Griffith 10. For Maccabi, Nikola Vujcic had another big game with 19 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists. Quincy Lewis added 13, Derrick Sharpe 11 and Huseyin Besok. Maccabi lost despite a 46-33 rebounding advantage and only 9 turnovers, perhaps because it could hit only 3 of 15 three-pointers (20%) on the night.
The first half would prove to be one of Maccabi's best defensive halves this season in the Euroleague. Many criticized the team during last week about its terrible defensive game in Kaunas but this time things looked much better. Tau started with 2-7 lead on 5 points by Leandro Palladino. Maccabi fought back in a low-tempo game and equalized at 7-7. Marcus Goree came off the bench but Dusko Ivanovic very quickly created a miss-match, sending in Hanno Mottola for his last game in a Tau uniform. Mottola went to work offensively against Goree and it paid off with 6 points in row that sent Goree back to the bench. Maccabi stayed strong, however, until a three-point play from Derrick Sharp on a great assist from Lior Lubin ti the game 16-16 after 10 minutes.
Maccabi strenghend its defense one more time and enjoyed a few good offensive moves from center Huseyin Besok, who scored 6 straight of his own in one-on-one confrontations with Rashard Griffith. Nikola Vujcic, meanwhile, put the breaks on Mottola and proved Maccabi's best player on both ends, finishing the first half with 11 points. Tau continued to base its game on point guard Jerome Allen's drives, but Maccabi had more options working. Quincy Lewis joined Vujcic with some quick and easy points to put Maccabi ahead 35-24. Maccabi was in charge with a 15-points advantage at 41-26, but Allen scored to pull Tau closer. Part of Tau's troubles to that point came from Nocioni having just came back from injury. He scored his only 2 points on a offensive rebound to close the first half the the Maccabi lead having been cut to single digits, 41-32.
Maccabi should have taken Nocioni's last basket in the first half as a warning, because he opened the second half with a three-pointer and only got better and better with time, especially on rebounds and defense. Step by step, Tau emphasized its inside game enjoying some good moments from Griffith and taking advantage of an off night by Goree. Mottola no longer had problems against Vujcic and Spanish team close the gap to 51-50 in the 28th minute. The lead finally came back to Tau at 53-54 as Laurent Foirest sank a pair of freee throws and Griffith hit an inside basket, but Vujcic scored on the buzzer to preserve a 55-54 Maccabi lead after 30 minutes.
The decisive quarter started with Tal Burstein's jumper for Maccabi, while Tau went through some confusion characterized by an unsportsmanslike foul called on Nocioni. Maccabi took 3 points from the situation for a 60-54 lead. But Tau's comeback started right then, too. A three-poin play by Griffith was followed by 2 more points from Nocioni for 60-59. After a series of misses by both teams, Burstein stepped up with a triple to pull Maccabi back from the brink, but Foirest responded from the same distance for 63-62 with 5 minutes to go. Another three by Jose Calderon finally put Tau ahead 63-65, and it looked like the guests were taking control of the game. Sharp re-appeared when he was most needed by Maccabi, hitting his own three, but with 2 minutes to go, Foirest put the guests in charge at 66-69. A missed dunk and a pair of missed three-point attempts by David Bluthenthal hurt a Maccabi team in need of a leader at that moment. Vujcic tried, and made it 68-70 with 50 seconds to go. At 28 seconds, Foirest missed a three-pointer. Vujcic shot but missed against both Griffith and Mottola, but Gur Shelef grabbed the offensive rebound, and fouled out Mottola, ending his season with Tau. Shelef missed the first free throw, scored the second and the players came back from a timeout with 9.4 seconds. Tau kept the ball away from the Maccabi defense until Calderon was fouled with no time on the scoreboard. He scored twice to end the game 69-72, and negative reaction that came from the 10,000 fans had not been seen in Yad Eliyahu Arena for a long time.
Thursday, December 12, 2002