The Final Four has a first-time guest after Unicaja vaulted to the top of Europe's elite by edging Winterthur FC Barcelona 67-64 in Game 3 of their best-of-three Quarterfinal Playoffs series on Thursday. A sellout crowd of 10,000 fans at Malaga's Martin Carpena Arena will never forget the thrilling fashion in which Unicaja won the series 2-1 and advanced to face defending champion CSKA Moscow in the semifinals in Athens on May 4. Pepe Sanchez became the game's hero by hitting a critical triple with 7.7 seconds to go before Marcus Brown put the victory on ice with free throws that gave put him over 2,000 points in his Euroleague Basketball career, only the second player to accomplish that feat. Marko Tusek paced the winners with 15 points, Sanchez had 11 and Brown 10. Fran Vazquez had 12 points for Barcelona while Gianluca Basile added 10 and Juan Carlos Navarro was limited to just 9 points. Roko-Leni Ukic had pushed Barcelona to a 60-62 lead early in the final minute, but free throws by Berni Rodriguez and a ice-cool triple by Sanchez sent Unicaja ahead for good. Thus ended one of the most intense game in playoff history, full of tears, drama and a explosion of joy by thousands of Unicaja fans who can now keep dreaming of Euroleague glory.
Florent Pietrus, who replaced Santiago in Unicaja's starting lineup, needed just 18 seconds to make his presence known with a tip-in that Jordi Trias matched for Barcelona with a dunk. Denis Marconato buried a five-meter shot that Brown answered from downtown for a 5-4 Unicaja lead. Unicaja had opted for a small starting lineup and Barcelona found Trias again around the basket. Berni Rodriguez shined with a left-handed layup that Carlos Jimenez followed with a driving basket to keep Unicaja ahead, 9-6. Gianluca Basile took over with a high-flying step-back jumper and Jaka Lakovic added free throws for Barcelona, but Jimenez's driving layup provided another lead change, 11-10. Navarro found his first basket, a floater in a crowd, as Barcelona also adjusted its man-to-man defense. Unicaja could not find the way to the basket while Lakovic scored driving to the basket for a 11-14 Barcelona lead. Carlos Cabezas saved the home team then, stealing an offensive rebound and putting it back in before Basile made up those points for Barcelona with free throws. With control hanging in the balance, Unicaja found sharpshooters in Jimenez and Brown, who buried back-to-back triples that lifted the crowd out of its seat before Lakovic and Marko Tusek traded free throws and Unicaja took a 21-18 edge after 10 minutes.
Basile fired in an outstanding seven-meter triple at the start of the second quarter while Barcelona improved its aggresseness on defense with Roger Grimau and Trias on court. Brown took over with a driving layup, as Unicaja matched that defensive intensity, holding Barcelona scoreless for 3 long minutes. The hosts did not do much better, however, until a three-point play by De Miguel lifted Unicaja to a 26-21 margin. Fran Vazquez stepped up for Barcelona with a mid-range jumper but Pepe Sanchez buried his first ttempt from downtown to set Martin Carpena Arena on fire at 29-23. Barcelona simply could not find the way to the basket, as Rodriguez was putting the breaks on Navarro, making the whole Barcelona offense collapse. Vazquez kept the guests breathing with a put-back layup but Sanchez nailed another triple to make it a seven-point game, 32-25. Navarro finally stepped up with his trademark "bomba", as Unicaja missed some easy shots that kept the hosts from breaking the game open. Vazquez scored in the paint but Sanchez matched it with free throws. Basile hit a wide open triple to bring Barcelona closer, but after a Unicaja timeout, Tusek matched it at the buzzer for a 38-32 lead by the hosts at the break.
The defensive intensity rose even higher after the break, as Barcelona tried to get Navarro involved without any success. Meanwhile, De Miguel banked in a short shot and Brown fed Cabezas for a fastbreak layup to give Unicaja its biggest margin so far, 42-32. The noise level in Martin Carpena was now off the charts, as everyone knew it was a decisive moment in this game. Navarro finished a terrific Barcelona offense with a corner triple but De Miguel answered with a flying put-back dunk. Free throws by Cabezas restored a double-digit Unicaja lead, 46-36. Barcelona kept missing shots as Unicaja, pushed by a sea of green and purple fans, kept full control of the game. Unicaja had entered the foul bonus but Barcelona kept struggling to score until Grimau silenced the crowd with a triple to make it 46-40. Unicaja did not panic, as Sanchez fed Pietrus for a huge dunk, but Grimau matched that free throws. By the time Vazquez beat the buzzer with a long jumper, Barcelona was within 48-44 at the end of the third quarter.
Trias hit a short jumper early in the final period, proving that Barcelona had regained the momentum with both Trias and Vazuqez on court. A layup-plus-free throw by a hyperactive Trias capped a 2-12 run that tied the game, 48-48. Unicaja found a go-to guy in Tusek, who buried a three-pointer that Vazquez answered with yet another jumper. Barcelona called timeout to calm its nerves before back-to-back driving layups by Roko-Leni Ukic took his team in front again for the first time since early in the game, 51-54 with 6 minutes to go. The Barcelona defense kept Unicaja locked out while Vazquez - who else? - hit another shot. Unicaja called a much-needed timeout and looked for Tusek, who kept the hosts close with free throws before Jiri Welsch scored in transition to turn the game into a thriller, 55-56, with 3 minutes remaining. Tusek tied it with a free throw but Ukic buried a tough jumper to keep Barcelona ahead, 56-58. Every possession mattered now, as Tusek scored inside with 1:40 to go. Lakovic and Tusek then traded free throws for a 60-60 tie with 1:19 remaining. Ukic scored with another flying drive at the basket, already in the final minute now, but free throws by Rodriguez meant a 62-62 tie with 49.9 tics to go. Navarro missed an off-balanced shot, setting the stage for Unicaja's chance to go ahead. Rodriguez slipped his defender, drove and dished off to Sanchez, who had left the game minutes earlier with a knee problem, but was now poised on the arc. Sanchez flicked his left wrist and the ball went down as 10,000 fans in Malaga went up. There were 7.7 seconds to go and Unicaja now led 62-65. After a Barcelona timeout, Navarro and Brown traded free throws. Lakovic was next to the line and missed twice, allowing Unicaja to seal its historic first ticket to the Final Four!
Thursday, April 12, 2007