One fateful last-second shot made CSKA Moscow the Group B champion with a miraculous 75-78 road over Zalgiris in Kaunas, Lithuania on Thursday night. Victor Alexander's three-point buzzer-beater at the finish left the Zalgiris fans stunned, but before the night was over, they learned that their magic season with legend Arvydas Sabonis, the Euroleague regular season MVP, would continue. Because of results in Group A, Zalgiris squeaked into the Top 16 as the best sixth-place team overall with a 6-8 record and a better point differential (+0) than its counterparts, AEK of Group A (-34) and Idea Slask of Group C (-48). CSKA improved to 11-3, and won its own tie-breaker with Maccabi based on a 48-point higher global point differential for the season. Marcus Brown paced the winners with 18 points, while Alexander pumped most of his 16 in the fourth quarter and J.R. Holden added 10. For Zalgiris, Ed Cota played all 40 minutes and scored 19 points, while Ainars Bagatskis put up 14 and Sabonis 12.
With -16 degrees centigrade outside and a few hundred CSKA fans inside, the Kaunas Sporto Hale warmed to the strains of the Lithuanian national anthem as sung by the Sabonis of opera singers,Virgilijus Noreika, as the nation's prime minister, Mr. Algirdas Brazauskas, and his wife joined the noisy crowd. The tension was high and the teams trade a few empty possessions until Cota hit a jump-hook. When Bagatskis and Sabonis then connected on 2 triples, the crowd roared, and when Arturas Javtokas added an inside basket, Zalgiris had a 10-0 lead after 3 minures. Holden finally made 2 free throws to put CSKA on the scoreboard, but with Sabonis and Cota connecting again, Zalgiris increased the gap to an amazing 13 points, 15-2. Still Zalgiris started to pay the cost of intense defense, and Tanoka Beard replaced Sabonis. Making use of a somewhat lessened defensive grip by Zalgiris, Brown and Victor Alexander soon reduced the deficit to 16-8 for CSKA. Still, Beard and Cota restored the gap to 24-13 at the end of 10 minutes.
CSKA reacted to start the second quarter as Dragan Tarlac came on to score 4 points, while Theodoros Papaloukas and Brown jumped on Zalgiris defensive mistakes to redue the deficit to 24-20. Zalgiris coach Antanas Sireika sent Sabonis and Javtokas back in, but if they were a successful tandem in the first period, now CSKA was awake. Brown and Cota exchange drives, then Sabonis was called for 2 offensive fouls, and CSKA coach Dusan Ivkovic sent Mirsad Turkcan on-court with a mission, to stop Sabas. Cota and Papaloukas traded inside baskets, then Holden landed a triple. Sergei Monia coverted 1 of 2 free throws, and for the first time there was a tie, 30-30. After Bagatskis hit from the downtown and Monia sank more foul shots, a Holden layup and Tarlac jumper got CSKA its first lead, 35-36. Giedras Gustas and Bagatskis took that lead back for Zalgiris at 39-36. The half ended with Gustas and Brown hitting triples, the latter's landing on the buzzer for CSKA, cutting the Zalgiris lead to 42-41.
After the break, Zalgiris jumped ahead again 47-43, but Jankunas missed a layup and Bagatskis a three. Alexander made them pay with a difficult basket, but Beard got those points back for Zalgiris. Holden showed great suspension to score off the glass at the end of one possession, then Brown went for a three-point play that got CSKA within 51-50. With Sabas on the court again, Zalgiris improved its defense, but scoring points was still a problem. Gustas made a tough close basket to build up some safety margin, 57-52 , but CSKA' s Khryapa saved his team with 4 foul shots in a row. On last possession of the third quarter, Cota slalomed to the basket but missed a layup, so Zalgiris clung to a 57-55 lead after 30 minutes.
To open the final quarter, Alexander tied for CSKA at 57-57 with an open shot from the elbow and Kryapa scored another 2 to put the guests in the lead again. Great moves by Brown with a tremendous dunk over Sabonis increased the lead to 58-61, after which Zalgiris committed a turnover. Sabonis and Cota answered for Zalgiris, but Alexander kept the scoreboard close, 60-63. Brown scored against a tiring home defense, but Sabonis had enough left for a tough reverse off-the-glass score-tying shot, 65-65, with less than 5 min to go. Bagatskis with a triple and Cota with another layup soon had Zalgiris in front, 72-69, with 3 minutes left, but Brown showed he was capable of great deeds. He scored twice before Papaloukas got open for a new CSKA lead, 72-73. After Sabonis and Alexander traded baskets, Bagatskis tied it 75-75 with one foul shot, and Zalgiris defended what seemed to be the last CSKA possession. But then Sabonis and Beard were whistled for 3 seconds in the lane, leaving 1.6 seconds on the clock. That was enough for Alexander's buzzer-beating triple75-78 that put CSKA in first place in Group B, and left Zalgiris and its shocked fans holding their breath for a Top 16 chance, which would come to them an hour later due to results elsewhere.
Thursday, February 19, 2004
Arunas Pakula, Kaunas