Montepaschi Siena had been waiting for two things all season, a road win in Group B and a scoring explosion from Alphonso Ford. Both things happened just at the right time on Thursday as Montepaschi ran away from Zalgiris 74-100 in Kaunas to shore up its chances in the tight Group B race. Ford proved unstoppable for the Zalgiris defense. The man who had been the Euroleague's top scorer the previous two seasons hit 7 of 9 three-pointers on his way to a season-high 33 points. Meanwhile, Montepaschi's big-name frontcourt registered a rare pair of double-doubles, Mirsad Turkcan collecting 21 points and 13 rebounds while Roberto Chiacig posted 14 points and 11 boards. As if that wasn't all, Vrbica Stefanov and Dusan Vukcevic came up with 10 points each. Led by Ford, Montepaschi made 12 of 21 three-pointers (57.1%) as compared to 4 of 15 (26.6%) for Zalgiris. Though Montepaschi was likely to remain in sixth place, the victory evened its record at 4-4, good news for a team undefeated at home, where it plays 4 of the final 6 regular season games. For Zalgiris, the loss dropped it to 2-6 and left a real uphill climb to its Top 16 dream. Kornel David again led his team with 21 points. Gintaras Einikis added 16, Mindaugas Timinskas 11 and Vidas Ginevicius 10.
Zalgiris sprang to the first significant lead behind 6 quick points from center Gintaras Einikis, to which David added a pair of free throws to make it 12-7 after 7 minutes. So far so good for the home team and its fans, who had seen Einikis as the key to a much-needed home win the previous week against Maccabi. But no sooner could the fans settle in for what seemed like a long, enjoyable game than the bottom started to fall out for Zalgiris. In the final 3 minutes of that first quarter, the Montepaschi offense exlpoded. Chiacig scored inside, Ford added a jumper, Mindaugas Zukauskas got free for a layup, and, pracically on the buzzer, Stefanov nailed a three-pointer. The five-point lead of Zalgiris had disappeared into a 14-16 lead for the visitors after 10 minutes. More significantly, the seeds of confidence among the Montepaschi scorers were sown for the rest of the game, while doubt started to creep into the minds of the Zalgiris players as to why both their defense and offense had again stopped working simultaneously.
That was just the beginning. To start the second quarter, Zukauskas hit a jumper and Ferdinando Gentile a three-point bomb that extended Montepaschi's run to 3-14 and its lead to 15-21 in 12th minute. A timinskas three-point play stopped the bleeding and pulled Zalgiris within 20-23, but 4 straight points by Turkcan had Montepaschi in the clear again at 27-20. The teams traded baskets until a Chiacig layup pushed Montepaschi ahead by double digtis, 24-34. A Vidas Ginevicius three-pointer raised the hopes of the crowd, but Cal Bowdler answered with a two-pointer plus free throw that restored the 10-point lead at 27-37. That was the start of another quarter-ending run by Montepaschi that Zalgiris seemed powerless to resist. Chiacig added a pair of free throws and Ford a layup for Montepaschi. Then, as Stefanov had on the 10-minute mark, Ford drilled a three-pointer just before the half, and Montepaschi had a huge 17-point lead, 27-44, going into the half. The signs of trouble were everywhere for Zalgiris, but particularly in the fact that Stomergas and Cota had only 2 points each until then, while Einikis hadn't scored a basket since the first 5 minutes. Zalgiris had made only 2 of 9 threes on the half, Montepaschi 5 of 11.
Zalgiris needed desperately to react, and did just that with three quick baskets - by Ginevicius, David and Stombergas - right after the half. That made it 33-44, and even when Ford got Montepaschi back in synch with a three-pointer, David answered with one of his own. Problem was, Ford was now hot, and he came the other way with the next possession and answered right back again from downtown. The Montepaschi lead was holding at 14, points, 36-50. That lead would again reach its halftime level of 17 points, 38-55, on a basket by Turkcan halfway through the quarter. Einikis rejoined the scorers with a basket, but Turkcan hit the next 2 for Montepaschi and the lead was nearing 20. Cota would emerge now for a pair of free throws and a layup as Zalgiris cut the deficit down to 48-64, but Ford was always there and added a basket in another end-of-quarter run that left Montepaschi holding 19 points, 50-69, after 30 minutes.
The only choice for Zalgiris was defense and deep shooting, but the hosts had neither all night. And the guests had Ford at his hottest. The veteran shootist and Dusan Vukcevic quickly sent the lead into the 20s and there it would stay with the continued assurance of rebounding from Turkcan and Chiacig, who both already owned double-doubles. Zalgiris fans had to watch as not only any hope of winning was lost with the time, but the Montepaschi lead continued rising. Ford's last three-pointer made it 64-94 with under 2 minutes to go. The visitors, newcomers to the Euroleague, had taken care of business and left the locals with a whole lot to think about.
Thursday, December 12, 2002