| For the first time in three tries this decade, Lietuvos Rytas fell short of the Top 16 by a single long-distance shot as visiting Unicaja posted a 71-73 victory on Wednesday that was heartbreaking for the home fans in Vilnius. Unicaja finished Group B with a 7-3 record, good for second place. L. Rytas tied Efes Pilsen for fourth place at 4-6, but lost their head-to-head tiebreak by 8 points, becoming the only four-win team in the Euroleague that will not make the Top 16. L. Rytas had reached the Top 16 in its previous two Euroleague seasons. The Vilnius fans got to see a thrilling game, however, as their team battled back several times from large deficits to lead near the end, only to see Omar Cook's 7 points in the last 3 minutes decide it for Unicaja. Georgios Printezis led the winners with 17 points and 7 rebounds, while Cook added 15 and 6 assists. Robert Archibald was good for 11 more points and Taquan Dean 10, including the last go-ahead three-pointer. Martynas Gecevicius was the big gun for L. Rytas with 19 points, including 4-for-5 shooting from long distance. Milko Bjelica followed with 18 points before fouling out early, as did Steponas Babrauskas, who scored 12. L. Rytas rebounded with 7 seconds left and a chance to tie or win, but Vidas Ginevicius couldn't get a shot off as time expired.
Archibald went baseline for a reverse layup to open the scoring after the tipoff. Nerves cost L. Rytas two possessions before Bjelica copied Archibald's shot. After Archibald hit free throws, Gecevicius gave L. Rytas its first lead 5-4 on a triple from the corner. Printezis took the lead back for Unicaja on a drive, then Archibald added to it with a jump-hook. By the time Printezis drove again, untouched, Unicaja was in front 4-10. L. Rytas needed a timeout, but afterward saw Joel Freeland drop a hook, draw Bjelica's second foul and hit the free throw. When Printezis again scored in close, the Unicaja lead was 4-15 and L. Rytas was hurting. That's when Gecevicius appeared with a new triple that was like water for someone dying of thirst. It didn't last, though, as Unicaja forced another 24-second shot violation on the hosts. A pair of free throws by Jiri Welsch were matched and bettered by layups from Arturas Jomantas and Aaron Baynes that got L. Rytas within 11-17. When Gecevicius downed a fastbreak layup, the crowd was on its feet for the first time, but a drop-step layup by Freeland and a free throw by Welsch left Unicaja in charge 13-20 after 10 minutes.
Babrauskas changed the mood with a driving layup to start the second quarter. Bjelica then got fouled and hit both free throws, cutting the difference to 17-20. Welsch got a free throw back, but the defenses dominated for a tense couple of minutes until Bjelica hit Babrauskas back-door for a layup at 19-21. The L. Rytas continued to confound Unicaja, forcing a timeout, after which Jomantas went to the line for go-ahead free throws to complete the home team's comeback. Baynes then scored on the break to make it 24-21 before Cook finally blasted Unicaja's first basket of the quarter, after 5 minutes, from downtown for the tie. Dean fed Printezis nicely to put Unicaja in front again, but Bojan Popovic tied it up, 26-26 at the line. An inside basket by Freeland kept Unicaja up, but then Gecevicius matched him from the baseline, falling down, to forge another tie, 28-28. Freeland hit 1 of 2 free throws to put Unicaja up, Bjelica both of his for a new L. Rytas advantage, then Cook took it back with a gutsy layup. Bjelica tipped in a miss to change the scoreboard again before the half ended as it started for Unicaja, with Archibald hooking a shot inside, while the quarter ended as it had started for L. Rytas, with Babrauskas drilling a corner triple to make it 35-33 for the hosts at the break.
Printezis and Jomantas traded buckets to open the second half before Bjelica's put-back lengthened the L. Rytas lead to 39-35. After Welsch hit a baseline rainbow, Bjelica matched him with free throws. Cook took up the cause then for Unicaja, blasting a big triple in transition before leading another break that Welsch finished with a two-point jumper and a new lead, 41-42 for the visitors. Dean punished an L. Rytas miss with a triple before his steal led Printezis to the foul line to make it 41-47. Then, Unicaja stretched its run to 0-10 run with a fastbreak layup by Dean that was also cause for a L. Rytas timeout. The hosts tried a zone defense, but after one stop, Printezis made a back-pass to Cesar Lima for an easy layup. Welsch's next steal ended with Printezis scoring just as easily, ending the 0-14 run at 41-53. Gecevicius saved his side with a corner triple. Archibald went to the line twice in a row, splitting his free throws 2 for 4. Ginevicius then left a spark of promise for the hosts by rattling in another triple to close the third quarter at 47-55.
The L. Rytas surge continued into the fourth quarter, which couldn't have started any better for the hosts. Babrauskas again provided the spark, with a layup and a heads-up triple that, sandwiched around a basket by Printezis for Unicaja, got L. Rytas within 55-57. Printezis added 1 of 2 free throws, but Bjelica responded with an inside basket at 57-58. Without the scoreboard changing, however, L. Rytas found trouble as Babrauskas and Bjelica got fourth fouls each. That did not deter Bjelica, who took a great pass from Jomantas, dunked and was fouled. When he made the free throw, L. Rytas was back in front, 60-58. However, Bjelica was immediately called for an offensive foul, his fifth, and left the game. What was worse for the hosts, Unicaja turned that turnover into a go-ahead triple by Cook at 60-61 at the halfway point in the quarter. Archibald added a free throw, but again L. Rytas was again saved by the triple, as Ginevicius made it from the corner to re-take the lead, 63-62. Carlos Jimenez answered with go-ahead free throws for Unicaja before Dean stole and finished a fastbreak at 63-66. After a timeout, the L. Rytas defense faltered, allowing Cook to drive clean for a layup. Offensive fouls leading to turnovers were hurting L. Rytas now, the latest by Dejan Borovnjak, sending Cook to the line to make it 63-70. Things looked rough for the locals with 2 minutes left, but Gecevicius lifted L. Rytas with 2 free throws and a defensive stop sent him back to the line. He made both again for a 67-70 score going into the final minute. Another stop led to Donatas Zavackas feeding Baynes for a dunk with 31 seconds left, at 69-70, and putting the fans on their feet. After foul by Ginevicius on Cook with 15 seconds left, the Unicaja guard lifted the lead to 69-72. Cook fouled Ginevicius, who made 2 of 2 with 7 seconds left. L. Rytas fouled Cook again, but this time he missed the second shot. With Cook defending him, Ginevicius dribbled upcourt, but didn't get a shot off in time, leaving the sold-out crowd in Vilnius disappointed at the Top 16's doorstep for the first tim
Wednesday, January 13, 2010