Tau Ceramica struggled early, but dominated Zalgiris Kaunas over the last three quarters for an 84-66 win on Wednesday night at the Fernando Buesa Arena in Vitoria, Spain. Minutes after he final whistle, Tau learned that Montepaschi Siena had won at Olympiacos, meaning head coach Neven Spahija’s troops finish the regular season in third place in Group A with a 9-5 record. Tau will be a second seed in the Top 16 Draw if Unicaja of Group B loses its last game or if Barcelona of Group C loses or wins by fewer than 32 points. Meanwhile Zalgiris drops to 8-6 and finishes the season in fourth place. It will be seeded third in the draw. Zalgiris was the stronger team early on, using a well-developed team attack with big minutes from Jonas Maciulis and Paulius Jankunas helping the Lithuanian champs to an 11-24 advantage. But Zoran Planinic’s buzzer-beating triple off the glass brought the hosts with 8 after 10 minutes and when Tiago Splitter and Igor Rakocevic got going in the second half, Tau regained the lead and sailed to a 44-39 halftime advantage. Zalgiris continued to fight at tied the game early in the third quarter, but was eventually overmatched by Tau, which muscled its way on both ends of the floor to an 18-point win. Splitter finished with a game-high 23 points and Rakocevic had 20 for the winners. Maciulis led Zalgiris with 17 points and Jankunas added 12.
Both teams got off to a cold start as Splitter was the only one able to score a free throw after first minute. Tau fed its center inside on nearly every offense, but the outcome wasn’t as good as expected. Zalgiris took advantage of it to build a 3-7 lead, behind a triple by DeJuan Collins and two baskets in a row by Maciulis. Jankunas made things even worst for the hosts as he nailed another three for a 7-point edge after four minutes. Although the hosts managed to find Rakocevic and Sergi Vidal to add points from the wings, it wasn’t enough to prevent Zalgiris from getting a double-digit lead midway through the first period, based on a smart defense and a patient offense. Even though Tau head coach Neven Spahija called for an urgent timeout, his players didn’t seem ready to react. Looking only for Splitter at offense, Tau struggled to find balance. On the other side, Zalgiris didn’t need to excel to keep a safe margin. A lucky three pointer by Jankunas was followed by a layup by Michael Bradley to give Zalgiris an 11-24 advantage entering the last minute. Splitter, with a pair of free throws, and Zoran Planinic, with a banked three-point shot at the buzzer, helped Tau to stay alive and trail 16-24 at the end of the first period.
Despite of an early layup by Splitter as the second period started, Zalgiris didn’t panic and kept looking for open shots and easy baskets. That’s how they found Bradley inside and Popovic outside to score 5 points in a few seconds, enough to keep Tau far from thinking of a quick comeback. But Tau seemed to react as Rakocevic hit a three-pointer and drew a personal foul from Popovic, which was followed by a put-back and a fast-break layup by Mirza Teletovic that woke the fans up and made it a 2-point game midway through the period. Head coach Rimantas Grigas stopped the game with a timeout, but the hosts remained hot. Rakocevic tied the game with a short jumper, as Will McDonald and Teletovic added consecutive points to cap a 13-0 run for a 37-33 Tau lead. Neither Grigas’s orders nor balanced offense served the guests, who seemed totally bewildered at that point. Planinic extended the lead as Tau’s centers started to dominate the boards. The offensive drought came to the end for Zalgiris thanks to a three-pointer by Marcus Brown, who finished a five-minutes period without Zalgiris points, but at that point Tau felt dominant already. A buzzer-beating baseline dunk by Jankunas allowed Zalgiris to reach halftime down only 44-39.
Zalgiris remained scoreless for the first two minutes after intermission, as Splitter kept leading Tau and raised difference to 48-39. But this time, the guests reacted fine. Maciulis hit a three, which was followed by a layup by Jankunas and 4 free throws from Brown and Collins that capped a 0-9 run that reset the game after 24 minutes. In an immediate answer, Rakocevic and Splitter combined for 7 points in a row that changed the picture again pretty quickly, as Tau found the intensity on defense it lacked for so many minutes. Splitter, unstoppable on offense, came up big on defense as well, making a couple of monster blocks on Popovic and Eurelijis Zukauskas that ignited the spirit of Tau fans. A three-pointer by Pablo Prigioni gave Tau its first double-digit margin at 62-52 with two minutes to go. A few seconds later another bomb by Rakocevic hurt the guests even more. Grigas’s timeout entering in the last minute proved quite useful, as Popovic and Maciulis reduced the gap to keep Zalgiris alive, 65-57, at the end of the third quarter.
Nerves took over on both sides at the beginning of the last period, as both teams struggled to find the basket due to increasing defensive efforts of each team. Rakocevic was the first one to break the trend, as he added a free throw that was followed by a triple by Jasaitis for a 69-57 Tau edge. Meanwhile, Zalgiris couldn’t hit even open shots and allowed Tau rebounders to dominate inside their basket. As such, Zalgiris remained scoreless for five minutes, too much time for any team that aspires to win in Vitoria. Collins and Maciulis came to the rescue, however, to make it a 9-point game, 69-60, with half of a quarter to be played, but Tau didn’t panic and kept trying the things that had granted the edge so far. Two free throws by Jasaitis and a basket-plus-free throw by McDonald were enough to raise differences to unreachable limits. Prigioni, with a huge three, capped an 8-0 run that definitely killed all guests’ hopes of getting any outcome with three minutes to go. With an eye kept on Athens, the hosts managed to keep a safe margin despite full-court pressure attempt by Zalgiris players. A free throw festival in the last minute closed the game with a solid Tau win.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008