With four games to go in the regular season, Efes Pilsen has strengthened its Group C lead in impressive fashion, rallying from 11 down in the second half to a 66-79 victory on the road against Benetton Treviso despite injuries to a pair of major frontcourt players. The Efes defense worked just fine, anyway, holding Benetton almost 20 points below its scoring average on the home floor of the Italian team. Efes extended its win streak to four games and its record to 8-2, while Benetton fell to 6-4 and a second-place tie with Pamesa Valencia. Trajan Langdon, in his return to Treviso after being part of Benetton's run to the Final Four last season, scorched his old team for 24 points. He and the other Efes shooters combined for 10 of 17 three-pointers. To make up for not being able to use injured big men Niksa Prkacin and Kaya Peker, Efes employed a clever 2-1-2 zone that stopped Benetton cold. The other Efes forwards, Ermal Kuqo and Goran Nikolic, stepped up with 13 and 12 points, respectively. Benetton got a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double from Jorge Garbajosa. Maurice Evans added 15 points and Tyus Edney 15, while Denis Marconato pulled down 13 rebounds.
The game started with Langdon being awarded a present from Benetton before tipoff and quickly scoring a basket over Evans to get Efes going after it. Langdon would keep pushing the visitors ahead, scoring 8 points after 10 minutes. His teammates followed his leadership by playing good defense and forcing Benetton into bad shots. The absence of Massimo Bulleri, injured during the last Italian League game, was felt heavily by Benetton. The multiple sources of offense Benetton usually enjoys seemed to dry up. On the Efes side, point guard Ender Arslan drove the ball easily on the other side of the floor and provided some good assists to Kuqo as Efes took a 14-20 lead after 10 minutes.
Three triples in a row - by Edney, Evans and Uros Slokar - got Benetton back in the game at 26-28 in minute 15. Garbajosa put pressure on the Efes big men and Ghilherme Giovannoni scored a triple on the shot-clock buzzer to put the hosts ahead 29-28. But Arslan soon launched his own long triple to give Efes back the lead at 29-31. After a Langdon layup, Evans and Garbajosa blocked shots by Omer Onan, leading to a fastbreak basket by by Edney, but Langdon kept getting loose and put Efes up 31-35 after 18 minutes. Slokar scored a difficult basket against a very good Efes defense, then Garbajosa was fed by Evans for an easy basket in the paint. It all added up to a 35-35 halftime score, promising a thrilling second half.
Benetton came out from the locker room with tiger eyes, feeding the ball underneath for three baskets in a row. Efes struggled to find a rhythm as Evans scores a three-point shot and a fastbreak as the hosts roared ahead, 46-35 after 24 minutes. Finally, a three-pointer Granger broke the ice for Efes, as Langdon seemed to have lost his touch with 4 consecutive misses. After a series of turnovers by both teams, Benetton still led 48-40. Garbajosa added a free throw late in the quarter but Langdon returned with a triple from downtown to give his team a breath of fresh air at 49-43 after 28 minutes. Riccardo Pittis came on for Benetton and assisted Garbajosa on a three-poiner, but Granger matched it for Efes. A turnover by Pittis and the subsequent foul allowed Alper Yilmaz of Efes to close the distance to 52-47 after 30 minutes.
A hook shot by Nikolic and a free throw from Kuqo quickly cut the Benetton lead to 52-50 early in the last quarter. The zone defense of Efes was choking the Benetton offense until Edney scored from 5 metes, but Langdon and Granger were ready with three-pointers as Efes surged ahead 54-56 in the 33rd minute. Benetton coach Ettore Messina tried to use Marcelo Nicola against the Turkish zone but Langdon stole and dunked and then Nikolic followed with a basket-plus-foul and Granger another triple from deep. Like that, Efes broke the game open, with its biggest lead yet, 58-66, just 4 minutes befor the finish. Langdon remained unstoppable, scoring over Evans, while Nikolic's free throw completed a four-minute, 16-4 run by Efes, which now led 58-69. Evans and Garbajosa got baskets back for Benetton, but Nikolic was on fire on the boards and helped Efes stay ahead, 63-71. The outcome was clear when Langdon drilled his last shot to complete an impressive return with 24 points and full control of Group C.
Wednesday, January 21, 2004