Before a sellout home crowd in Vilnius, Lithuania on Wednesday, Lietuvos Rytas won the battle with visiting Tau Cermica 65-63 in Group F of the Top 16, but lost the war when the margin of victory proved too close to prevent the visitors from reaching the next round. Tau's record fell to 3-2 while that of L. Rytas rose to 2-3. Even if they tie on wins and losses after the final week of Top 16 games, Tau would advance on cumulative score between them after having beaten L. Rytas 96-89 in their first meeting of the round. L. Rytas not only had to win but to do so by 8 points or more to avoid elimination. For that reason, Tau's rally from 10 points behind with less than 5 minutes remaining proved the key to the visitors advancing. Travis Hansen was the hero for Tau with back-to-back triples down the stretch to give him 12 points in the quarter and 17 for the game. Luis Scola added 15 points for Tau and Kornel David 11. For L. Rytas, it was victory by committee as only Matthew Nielsen scored in double digits, with 10 points. With tenacious defense, the hosts held Tau to mostly free throws for three quarters and still led 63-50 before a three-point basket-plus-free throw by Scola with under 5 minutes left. Next came Hansen's pair of three-point shots, after which Tau's defense did the rest. L. Rytas was limited by the loss of point guard Roberts Stelmahers to injury after the first quarter.
L. Rytas got on the scoreboard first as Robertas Javtokas hit a nice semi-hook, but Hansen stepped up with a triple to put Tau ahead. Javtokas was whistled for an offensive foul and Nielsen turned the ball over on consecutive attacks before Scola scored in the paint to widen the gap to 2-5. Tau's pressure defense didn't pay off as Roberts Stelhamers was left alone in the corner and converted a triple to tie. The pace picked up a bit - just as Tau likes it - before Javtokas and Scola exchanged massive dunks inside and left the score tied at 10-10 halfway through the quarter. Nielsen surprised by hitting from beyond the arc and Frederick House made a free throw to send the hosts ahead, 14-10. Nielsen didn't miss his chance from the line and ended a 6-0 run for L. Rytas. However, Scola worked hard on the other end and forced Javtokas's third foul, sending him to the bench. Nielsen stayed on f ire to regain a six-point lead, 18-12. Kornel David made 4 free throws, but between them Stelhamers buried his second shot from the arc before Nielsen and Povilas Cukinas combined for 3 points to lead L. Rytas to a 24-16 lead after 10 minutes.
Both teams had a slow start of the second quarter until Cukinas made a free throw and continued his excellent play in defense by blocking Scola twice. It seemed that L. Rytas had found its rhythm, even without Stelmahers, who left the court with a possible injury after the first quarter. To prove it, House made a mid-range jumper and forced a Tau timeout. When play resumed, Scola made 1 of 2 free throws before Cukinas pushed in a difficult put-back and Mindaugas Lukauskis came fresh off the bench to score, once with an additional free throw, to finish a 10-2 that boosted the L. Rytas lead to 34-18. Casey Jacobsen stepped up with a triple before Hansen made a free throw for Tau to reduce the margin to 37-24. L. Rytas continued to struggle but, after a needed timeout, Tomas Delininkaitis sank another triple from beyond the arc to make it 40-25. Free throws hit the headlines in the last minute of the second quarter as both sides made 7 of them, until Roko-Leni Ukic beat the buzzer and fixed the score at 43-31 before the break.
Nielsen started the second half by penetrating and converting under the basket to make it 45-31. After that, both teams coudn't score for 2 minutes until Serkan Erdogan made a free throw for Tau. Cukinas scored a semi-hook but Tau stepped up the pace now with Pablo Prigioni feeding Scola nicely for a layup and Erdogan penetrating. The hosts' lead was reduced to 47-36 before Nielsen forced Scola's fourth foul but missed all 3 free throws he was given. The visitors made use of it as Tiago Splitter scored again in the paint, cutting the margin to 47-38 with 5 minutes to go in the third quarter. A timeout helped L. Rytas as Delininkaitis drove and dropped a layup to regain a double-digit lead, 49-38. The score didn't change for more than 2 minutes until Andrius Slezas rose off the bench and sank a triple to make it 52-41. Another L. Rytas attack finished with an amazing alley-oop dunk by Javtokas. Tau struggled from the line, Jacobsen mising both, and only David's jump shot could reduce the difference to 55-44 after three quarters.
L. Rytas started the final quarter finding Maurice Baker for a basket inside but Hansen responded with a triple to reduce the margin to 57-47. Baker sank a flashy basket-plus-free throw before Splitter scored inside to make it 60-49. Delininkaitis made a free throw, only to see it answered by Scola on the other end before Slezas penetrated to boost the lead to 63-50. Scola stepped up with a basket-plus-free throw, but then the game turned into a physical battle and L. Rytas called for a timeout. The short break didn't help the hosts as Hansen sank consecutive triples after it to reduce the margin to 65-59 with just over 2 minutes to play. L. Rytas needed to win by 8 to stay alive and prevent Tau from reaching the quarterfinals yet, but almost 90 seconds passes without any points. With 38 seconds to go, it was do-or-die situation for the hosts, but when a two-point basket would have been enough, Delininkaitis passed to Jasaitis on the arc, and his crucial three-pointer with 20 seconds to go missed. Prigioni made it to the line for 2 free throws to make it 65-61 before Delininkaitis missed 2 of his own, ending the chances for L. Rytas and sending Tau ahead to the playoffs.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006