Maccabi Tel Aviv put its stamp on brutal Group B with an 87-91 road win at Zalgiris Kaunas in an absolute thriller of a game on Thursday. Maccabi stays undefeated at 5-0 and now holds first place alone following CSKA's home loss to Skipper 24 hours earlier. Zalgiris falls to 3-2, but is assured at least a share of third place. The stars were out in Kaunas, Lithuania and putting up major numbers for both teams, but in the end none other than Sarunas Jasikevicius, a Lithuanian hero playing for the visitors, drilled the three-pointer with just over 2 minutes left that put Maccabi ahead for good. The inside battle between the leader of the MVP index ranking, Zalgiris center Arvydas Sabonis, and the back-to-back weekly MVP, Maceo Baston of Maccabi, was practically a draw, but an exceptional one. Sabonis finished with 18 points, 17 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks. Baston almost matched him with 17 points, 14 rebounds and 3 steals. Five more Maccabi players reached double figures, as Nikola Vujcic topped the scorers with 19 points. Jasikevicius added 16 points, Derrick Sharp 13, Tal Burstein 11 and Anthony Parker 10. Sabonis was backed by Dainius Salenga and Tanoka Beard with 16 points each, while Ed Cota and Miroslav Beric popped 12 each for Zalgiris.
A crowd of sellout capacity and perhaps a little more greeted national heroes Sabonis and Jasikevicius with a very warm salute, in which also a few hundred yellow-dressed Maccabi fans were heard, also. After tipoff, however, sympathies were put aside. A first good sign for the Zalgiris fans was Sabonis making a layup to start the game. When Salenga followed with a three-pointer, Zalgiris led 5-1. Maccabi missed its first 3 field goal attempts until Tal Burstein made a mid-range jumper and Parker added a layup to tie the game at 5-5 after 3 minutes. Both teams struggled in the offensive end, as Baston sealed the defensive rebounds for Maccabi, grabbing 5 in as many minutes. Sabonis was the only consistant scorer for the hosts: he made 2 layups and fed surprise starter Arturas Javtokas for a slam in a 6-2 run to an 11-7 Zalgiris advantage. But it didn't last long. Vujcic made a layup, Burstein added a three-pointer and Derrick Sharp drilled 2 foul shots to vault Maccabi in front 13-14 after 8 minutes. Javtokas made 2 free throws before Parker, who picked up his second foul on the previous play and soon went to the bench, answered with a jumper to give Maccabi a one-point lead, 15-16, after one quarter. Maccabi had shot 6-for-19 from the field, but still managed lead because Zalgiris had only connected on 6 of 16 shots.
The second quarter was radically different, as both teams started exchanging baskets at high speed. Maccabi used a fastbreak layup by Jasikevicius, 5 points by Nikola Vujcic and a layup by Burstein to extend their lead to 6 points, 19-25. Sabonis stepped up to score a layup which ignited a 7-0 Zalgiris run, in which Beric made a mid-range jumper and Salenga drilled a three-pointer. Zalgiris was back in front, 26-25. Several lead changes followed, as Jasikevicius and Salenga scored, and Burstein fired back from downtown to give the guests a 28-30 lead with 4 minutes to go in the half. Tanoka Beard, scoreless until then, now put in back-to-back baskets for a new Zalgiris advantage, 32-30. Sharp and Giedrius Gustas traded three-pointers before Vujcic tied it again, 35-35, with a layup. Then, in the half's last 2 minutes, Zalgiris took over. A 10-2 run, in which Beric had 6 points while Salenga and Gustas added 2 apiece vaulted Zalgiris into a 45-37 lead. Vujcic and Salenga exchanged baskets at the finish, but Zalgiris reached the lockers ahead by 8 points, 47-39, after having scored 32 points on 13-for-17 shooting in the second quarter.
Ed Cota opened the second half with a three-pointer which pushed the local lead into double digits, 50-39. Maccabi seemed to find an answer soon after that, when Jasikevicius made 2 freebies and added a layup to make it a seven-point game at 52-45. The game went back to the low-scoring parameters of the first quarter, as Baston kept the guests close with 5 consecutive points, 57-50. Cota had gone scoreless in the first half, but his 9 third-quarter points, added to Sabonis's rebounding domination on the defensive end, helped the hosts to push their lead back to 11 points, 63-52. As both teams reached the foul bonus, a carousel of free throws started. Jasikevicius made 3 out of 4 for the guests, while Beric and Salenga each made 2 attempts. Maccabi managed to ignite a comeback late in the third, as Sharp drilled one from downtown and Baston added a three-point play to make it a six-point game, 67-61. Beard appeared again to score a layup and block a shot by Baston, but Deon Thomas added a foul shot for Maccabi before Sharp buried a triple to bring Maccabi within 4 points, 69-65. A Sabonis layup at the end helped Zalgiris stretch difference to six, 71-65, after 30 minutes.
Maccabi's pride showed with its strong start in the fourth quarter as Vujcic made a layup, Parker added 2 free throws and Bastom made a wild dunk to tie the game at 71-71. Even when Beard stopped the streak with basket, Baston followed it with a three-point play to bring the guests ahead, 73-74, with 7 minutes to go. A new game had started, and tension took over as five lead changes followed, with Beard's layup seemingly ending the home team's struggles by putting Zalgiris ahead 80-78 with less than 4 minutes remaining. Soon, Parker made 2 more free throws as Maccabi re-took the advantage, 81-82, but then Beric answered from the line himself for another Zalgiris advantage. That's when Jasikevicius stepped up and buried a three-pointer, soon to be followed by Thomas, whose layup off a steal by Vujcic put the guests in control at 83-87 with less than 2 minutes remaining. Zalgiris had not said its final word, however. Sabonis, showed his greatness, rebounding at both ends of the court. He made a free throw, which Beard followed with a layup, to make it a one-point game again, 86-87, entering the final minute. Salenga foul Vujcic, who made both free throws, and then Maccabi sent Cota to the line, but he missed his second attempt. Sharp went to the line to hit his 2 free throws and seal the win for the guests, who walked off the court in Kaunas as the exclusive Group B leaders.
Thursday, December 4, 2003
Arunas Pakula, Kaunas