A night of thrills in Kaunas, Lithuania ended with the biggest of them all as Ed Cota's three-pointer with 17.9 seconds left lifted Zalgiris to an 80-79 victory over Union Olimpia that left the hosts holding first place alone in Group A. Zalgiris had a tough time all 40 minutes with its nemesis, Union Olimpija, which had won 8 of their previous 9 meetings and went ahead 77-79 on Jimmy Oliver's triple in the final minute. Yotam Halperin took the visitors' one last chance on the final possession, but his game-winning shot attempt fell short. As such, Zalgiris has a 6-2 record and is still atop Group A, while Olimpija fell to 2-6 and is looking at a struggle in 2006 to reach the Top 16. Zalgiris fans had their first thrill when star center Tanoka Beard returned to the lineup. He finished with 11 points in 22 minutes on the floor. Darjus Lavrinovic led the hosts with 19 points, while Reggie Freeman added 14 and Cota picked up 7 assists. Oliver fired in 21 points for Olimpija, Halperin 17 and Teemu Rannikko 10.
Beard was in the Zalgiris starting lineup after missing his last six Euroleague games due to injury. Olimpija's Toni Dijan scored first in the low post and Dragisa Drobnjak followed him under the basket as the visitors went up 0-4. Zalgiris answered with off-the glass jumper by Beard and free throws made from Freeman to tie 4-4. Zalgiris still had problems on defense as another big man, Josko Poljak, scored 5 points in a 0-7 run to push Olimpij ahead 4-11. Beard stepped up with left handed layup, but Teeamu Ranniko nailed bomb from downtown and Halperin added an easy basket to boost the visitors in front, 10-16. Zalgiris put Darjus Lavrinovic on the court and it paid off immediately as he fed Beard with a nice assist for an easy layup. But it was Simonas Serapinas who charged the crowd with a four-points triple-plus-free throw and added another basket for a personal 6-0 run that gave Zalgiris its first lead, 20-19 after 10 minutes.
Zalgiris opened the second quarter with an in-your-face dunk by Darius Silinskis and triple by Lavrinovic, but Olimpija answered with 9 points, all by Halperin and Jimmy Oliver. It was wake-up call for Zalgiris as Jonas Maciulis made 2 points from the line and Lavrinovic added sleek fastbreak dunk to retake the lead at 31-30. Vidas Ginevicius scored from the outside the arc but Olimpija copied him twice with triples by Oliver and Vedran Morovic. Zalgiris turned the ball over a violation by Maciulis, who made up for it with a basket on the next possession to make it 39-40. In the final minute, Drobnjak made free throws and Cota missed his pair as Olimpija took a 39-42 halftime lead to the lockers.
Larry Ayuso fed Beard for an easy layup early in the third quarter but Olimpija answered with a 5-0 run capped by Halperin's three-point play. Freeman copied him, however, to keep the Zalgiris offense going until Ayuso could launch the triple that tied it 47-47. Zalgiris's man-to-man defense was working well as Olimpija couldn't get through for a few minutes, until Oliver made a shot from downtown and Halperin added basket in the fastbreak to put the guests ahead, 50-52. Lavrinovic and Ginevicius answered with 4 free throws but Zalgiris paid for leaving Oliver open for a triple. Zalgiris found its go-to guy in Lavrinovic, who bombed from downtown and controlled the boards on defense. Still, Halperin was able with free throws to forge 59-59 tie after 30 minutes.
Paulius Jankunas scored first 4 points for Zalgiris in the fourth quarter but Olimpija dominated in the paint as Drobjnak made a three-point play and Hasan Rizvic faked to score an easy basket. Zalgiris seemed sloppy on offense as only individual efforts - a drive by Freeman and a reverse layup by Jankunas - kept the hosts alive. Drobjnak picked his fifth foul and that gave some extra space for Lavrinovic, who penetrated to tie 69-69. Both teams made mistakes until Freeman buried a crucial three-pointer to push hosts ahead 73-75. But that only assured more drama. Olimpija answered with free throws by Ranniko and triple from the right corner by Halperin. Lavrinovic stepped up with a three-point play to make it 77-76 for hosts but Olimpija didn't gave up and found Oliver, whose three-pointer gave the visitors a 77-79 lead with 20 seconds to go. In the end, however, the match belonged to Cota, who drilled a triple off the dribble to seal a tough victory for Zalgiris, 80-79.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Antanas Pakula, Kaunas