| An early ticket to the Top 16 was the pre-holiday present Unicaja gave itself and another team by outlasting Efes Pilsen 77-79 on the road in Istanbul on Thursday. Unicaja moved to 6-2 in Group B, matching records with Olympiacos, which also qualified with the loss by Efes. Olympiacos holds first place, however, based on a margin of victory 3 points better in the victories it split, head to head, with Unicaja. Efes, meanwhile, drops to 3-5, a victory behind all-important fourth place, the last that means a Top 16 berth. Unicaja broke open a close game after halftime to lead by as much as 13 points but had to withstand a late Efes rally thanks to free throws in the final minute by Omar Cook. He was among six Unicaja scorers between 8 and 15 points in a triumph of balanced scoring. Georgios Printezis led the way with 15 points, while Jiri Welsch and Carlos Jimenez had 12 each, Joel Freeland 11. For Efes, Igor Rakocevic pumped in 21 points while Charles Smith added 14 and Mario Kasun 11. Its 19 turnovers at home to just 12 for Unicaja probably hurt Efes most.
Ender Arslan got the scoreboard started for Efes with a quick layup before Freeland did the honors for Unicaja with a post-up shot. When the guests went ahead on a second Freeland layup, Kasun answered with a put-back dunk, Smith stole for a fastbreak layup and Bootsy Thornton drilled a triple on the break to make it 9-4 for Efes. Unicaja was ready to answer, however. Freeland scored despite an intentional foul, and with the ensuing possession, Jimenez downed his own triple from the wing to tie 9-9. Kasun's free throw put Efes in front again and his back-down layup made it 12-9. There the score was stuck for awhile until Robert Archibald, injured a week ago, returned with free throws. Preston Shumpert responded from downtown for Efes and Arslan drove untouched for a layup to make it 17-11. Unciaja could manage only free throws until a surprise fullcourt press to finish the quarter yielded a layup by Shammond Williams, although free throws by Rakocevic meant that Efes still led 19-17 after 10 minutes.
Kasun kept Efes rolling inside while Rakocevic launched from long-range to push the hosts ahead by 24-18 early in the second quarter. Taquan Dean got a basket back for Unicaja, but Smith had another steal and layup to make it 27-20. Printezis joined the Unicaja scoring column with a baseline jumper and then Williams, off a steal by Jimenez, hit from downtown in transition to revive the guests at 27-25. On the next fastbreak, Williams fed Freeland for an alley-oop slam to tie it up. Although Smith's free throw kept Efes ahead, Printezis dropped a triple that took the lead back for Unicaja, which then added to it with a back-door reverse by Jimenez at 28-32. A put-back by Printezis forced an Efes timeout, after which Daniel Santiago assisted a layup by Smith, Berni Rodriguez put back his own miss and Rakocevic drilled another triple. But when Freelend fed Guillem Rubio for a layup, Unicaja was still ahead by 35-38. Rakocevic lowered the difference with free throws before Efes regained the lead, 39-38, on Thornton's assist to Kaya Peker. It lasted one possession, however, until Omar Cook spoke up from long range, sending Unicaja into halftime holding a 39-41 lead.
Archibald added a basket to Unicaja's lead to open the second half. Kasun took it back with a follow-up slam for Efes. Cook and Printezis then connected twice, for a jump-hook and a triple, as Unicaja went up 41-48. Again Kasun answered for Efes, but left clutching his back after fouling Archibald, who made a free throw before Jimenez rifled in a corner triple to make it 43-52, the game's biggest lead. Efes got a layup from Santiago in response, but suddenly Welsch took over for Unicaja with 3 consecutive baskets ending in a fastbreak dunk and a huge 45-58 lead for the visitors. Efes needed something, and Rakocevic gave it, a triple from the corner that Santiago followed with free throws. Next, Welsch posted up for another 2 points, but Santiago's put-back lowered the difference again to single digits, 52-60. Efes finished the thrid quarter stronger as a block by Kaya Peker led to Smith's reverse layup and a 55-60 score after 30 minutes.
The momentum stayed with Efes as Smith opened the fourth quarter with a smooth triple. Unicaja, meanwhile, couldn't score on a five-shot possession. Efes had three shots at the lead before Santiago plucked a rebound and put it back for a 60-60 tie. That woke up Unicaja, and especially Archibald, who dunked and then stole and fed Jimenez on the break to preserve a 60-64 lead. Out of nowhere, Kerem Tunceri took 3 points back with one shot for Efes. Cook answered by flying in for a fastbreak layup, but Rakocevic matched him with free throws. A running hook by Jimenez made it 64-68. After a timeout, Rakocevic drilled a fallaway jumper, but not the extra free throw, while Welsch scored in close. After Freeland blasted a triple at 66-73, Efes needed a new timeout with less than 4 minutes left. Despite a basket by Rakocevic to pull Efes closer, Unicaja was killing time with offensive rebounds. Thornton went backdoor for a layup, but the Efes defense left Printezis alone in the corner to make it 70-76 with a triple entering the final minute. Thornton got back to the free throw line, making 1 of 2, before the big play Efes needed came, a layup-plus-free throw by Shumpert with 22 seconds left, making it 74-76. Now, Unicaja needed the timeout, after which Efes fouled, putting Cook on the line, where he made 2 of 2. Smith got a quick layup in response, but Thornton's near-steal on the ensuing Efes press caromed out of bounds. Cook went back to the foul line and made 1 of 2 with 8 seconds left, allowing Efes a chance at 76-79. Unicaja fouled now, and when Rakocevic missed his second, Unicaja had made it to the Top 16!
Thursday, December 17, 2009