An emotional night in Bologna that saw Valerio Bianchini coach his first Euroleague game for Virtus even as local hero Antoine Rigaudeau was likely playing his last turned out perfectly for both men and their fans. Virtus shook off doubts about its near-term future with a compelling 81-64 blowout against visiting Partizan Mobtel. Rigaudeau, apparently leaving imminently for the NBA's top team, the Dallas Mavericks, made his goodbye a memorable one, scoring 18 points to lead Virtus to its biggest margin of victory in Group C this season. Bianchini called him to the bench in the final minute, but Rigaudeau never sat. The standing ovation for him lasted 5 minutes, and then Rigaudeau did a victory lap around the court with a Virtus scarf, hugging many fans and saving one for Predrag Danilovic, his partner in Virtus's first Euroleague title in 1998, now the vice-president of Partizan. On this night, Rigaudeau had help, too, with Derrick Dial adding 16 points and Mladen Sekularac 10. The victory assured Virtus of keeping at least partial hold on second place with a 6-4 record and moved the team a step closer to Top 16 qualification. Partizan, meanwhile, fell to 3-7, a step removed from the same objective, despite 19 points from Milos Vujanic and 14 from Nenad Krstic.
The Virtus fans showed great affection to Rigaudeau a day after he confirmed receiving an offer from the Dallas Mavericks that could end his six-year stint in Bologna. Rigaudeau was in the starting lineup as Virtus sprang ahead by 6 points, 12-6, thanks to the point scoring of Dial and Sekularac. Partizan tried to stay into the game and responded with an 8-2 run to 16-14, most of it coming on good pick-and-roll plays by Vujanic and Krstic, who was working the post. Rigaudeau and David Andersen halted Partizan's surge with a jumper each to give Virtus a six-point lead, 20-14, through 10 minutes.
The first big move on the scoreboard came at the beginning of the second quarter. Rigaudeau started it with a basket and Ruslan Avleev added 6 points in a row as the lead zoomed to 33-22. Vujanic stopped the bleeding for Partizan with a triple, but Virtus went on with good defensive intensity, and with 2 steals was able to make another 5-0 run to deepen the lead to 38-25 on Matjaz Smodis's three-pointer. Partizan troubles were compounded by early fouls to its backcourt duo, Vujanic and Fred House. Virtus reached the intermission with 13 points to defend, leading 42-29 as Sekularac crowned a strong 20 minutes with a three-pointer at the buzzer.
That this would be a night of celebration was even more clear as Partizan collapsed in the third period due to the increased defensive intensity of Virtus. The home team found good open shots for all players, dominated beneath the baskets and allowed Partizan only 3 points in the first 8 minutes of the quarter. Virtus even lined up young Marco Belinelli, who nailed 5 quick points, taking his team to the maximum lead of 28 points, 66-38, at the end of a third quarter which ended with another triple, from Dial.
Partizan tried to limit the damages switching to a 2-3 zone defense in the fourth quarter and alternating it with the man-to-man matchup. It certainly worked, as the guests outscored Virtus 15-0 with Vujanic and Krstic pouring in the points once again. The score was 66-53 all of a sudden, so who did Virtus turn to? Who else: Rigaudeau. In what may be a final gift to his loyal fans, the 31-year-old swingman looked as young as when he arrived in Bologna in 1998. Jumping off picks and making magic shots, Rigaudeau scored the next 9 points to put the game away at 75-53 and perhaps close his storied stay with the Bologna black-and-whites. Bianchini allowed Rigaudeau to bow out with 58 seconds left, but the ovations lasted as long as an overtime. On this night, at least, perhaps Rigaudeau's fans would have preferred the extra minutes.
Wednesday, January 8, 2003