A valiant effort to keep an attempted return to the Final Four alive didn't work as Unicaja's 79-58 home win over Lottomatica Roma in their Top 16, Group G finale was not enough to get the winners to the playoffs again. Unicaja finished tied for second place at 3-3 with AXA F.C. Barcelona, but the latter advanced by the difference of a single point in the 1-1 series record between those two teams. Unicaja played tough from the opening tip with the idea that group winner CSKA might stop Barcelona at home in a game played simultaneously across Spain, but it was not to be. Roma, which would also have advanced had it won and Barcelona lost, wilted after halftime under Unicaja's relentless defensive pressure. Jiri Welsch and Terrel Castle led the winners with 15 points each, while Carlos Jimenez added a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds, while Marcus Haislip had 10 and 8, respectively. Uncaja's defense starred most, however, holding Erazem Lorbek scoreless as only Rodrigo De la Fuente with 15 points and Roko-Leni Ukic with 11 reached double digits for Roma, which also hurt itself with 12-for-22 free-throw shooting.
Starting in place of injured Carlos Cabezas, point guard Bujan Popovic made a baseline jumper to start the scoring for Unicaja, then Haislip followed his own miss at 4-0. De la Fuente got loose for a layup to get Roma rolling. The visitors took three fouls on the next Unicaja possession, however, which finished with Jimenez drilling a triple for a 7-2 lead. Unicaja center Daniel Santiago got hit with his second offensive charging foul and went to the bench, but Haislip added 3 points for Unicaja before De la Fuente and Ukic scored inside for the visitors. Welsch and Boniface Ndong made it 14-6 as Unicaja continued to get to the foul line. Jimenez hit another triple then, forcing a Roma timeout at 17-6. Roma came out and found Gregor Fucka for a reverse layup. After Welsch and Hawkins traded free throws, Ibby Jabber came out of nowhere for a bucket to get Roma within 19-12 after 10 minutes.
Roma's resurgence continued when Jon Stefansson opened the second quarter with a three-point bomb, then Fucka put in a free throw and a two-point basket. It was 19-18 and nerves were still evident in unforced giveaways and misses, but some great defense includes Alessandro Tonolli rejecting a fastbreak layup try by Castle. Unicaja's 7 minutes without anything but free throws ended with hook and bank shots by the same player, German Gabriel, to make it 23-18, cause for a Roma timeout. The visitors returned to get a put-back by De la Fuente, and when Castle answered from downtown, Ukic did the same for Roma at 26-23. Next, Fucka spun elegantly in the paint for a layup, but Castle launched from beyond the arc again. Ukic answered with a running jumper then fed De la Fuente on a classic dribble-free fastbreak for the tying layup at 29-29. Fucka could have put Roma ahead, but missed his fifth of six free throw tries so far. Unicaja took advantage with a reverse by Welsch and free throws by Popovic to lead 33-29 at halftime.
Unicaja went straight inside to start the second half, and got a basket-plus-free throw from Haislip. When Popovic drove for a layup, the lead was suddenly at its highest yet, 38-29. Fucka returned for Roma and immedately scored in close, but Popovic blew in for another layup, got fouled and hit the free throw for the first double-digit lead, 41-31. Unicaja's defense gave Roma no good looks, and gave up only a free throw to De la Fuente. Next, Welsch lifted up for a triple before he was intentially fouled on a steal, hitting both free throws. At 45-32, the hosts were threatening to run away. Ukic finally scored an acrobatic basket and De la Fuente fired from the corner to steady the visitors with a 45-37 scoreboard. Welsch missed both of his free throws, and Roberto Gabini kept Roma's rally going with a huge triple. Jimenez got added a point for Unicaja at the line, but Stefannson got a backdoor three-point play that also drew Santiago's fourth foul. At 46-43, it seemed like a whole new ballgame. After a timeout, however, Jimenez lifted Unicaja's spirits with his third three-pionter, then downed 2 free throws to make it 51-43. Then came a killer shot, Castle banking in a three-pointer from the wing to restore the double-digit difference at 54-43. Hawkins got to the line in the final minute, but only enough to cut Unicaja's lead to 54-46.
Nerves took over again as Ndong and Gabriel missed all 4 free throws between them to start the final quarter. Hawkins didn't miss his, however, and made it 54-48 before crowd favorite Berni Rodriguez did not waste an open three-point look. When Welsch followed him from the opposite wing, Unicaja was fully in charge again, 60-48. Ndong and Castle combined on 7 consecutive points to lengthen the lead to 67-50. Even though Stefansson and De la Fuente hit triples for Roma, the air went out of both teams as news came down that Barcelona had already beaten CSKA by a point to take Group G's last qualifying spot for the playoffs. An extended exchange of free throws was broken only by Castle's fourth three-pointer to finish the game and bring on an extended exchange of hand-shakes and wishes of better luck in the future.
Thursday, March 20, 2008