Despite losing the Euroleague's top-rated player to injury early in the game, Partizan roared into the Top 16 four a fourth consecutive season by overwhelming direct rival Lietuvos Rytas 97-67 at home in Belgrade on Wednesday. Partizan improved to 5-4 in Group B and with the huge margin of victory assured itself the Top 16 thanks to a tiebreak advantage over L. Rytas, now 4-5, even if they finish in a three-way tie for third place with Efes Pilsen, which is 3-5. In the games between the three, all teams went 2-2 against the others, but Efes has the higher point differential (+17), Partizan the second-best (-1) and L. Rytas the last (-16). The magic points came Partizan's way with a rabid fourth-quarter defense that held L. Rytas to 2 points for 9 full minutes. That defense was led by 2.29-meter center Slavko Vranes, who replaced December MVP winner Aleks Maric due to the latter's knee injury 8 minutes into the game. Vranes finished with 13 points, 9 rebounds and 4 of Partizan's 9 blocks. He basically scared L. Rytas away from the rim in the final quarter, which Partizan won 25-6. Aleskandar Rasic led the winners with 26 points by nailing 6 of 8 three-pointers. Lawrence Robers added 16 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 assists, while Dusan Kecman scored 12 and Bo McCalebb 10. For L. Rytas, Bojan Popovic scored 17 points while Martynas Gecevicius and Arturas Jomantas had 11 each, Donatas Zavackas and Milko Bjelica 10 each. Lietuvos Rytas must hope it wins one more game than Efes Pilsen or else it will not reach the Top 16.
Zavackas from downtown and Gecevicius from closer in got L. Rytas off to a good 2-5 start, but Partizan had its roaring crowd behind it and didn't stay down long. McCalebb had his way going to the basket before Roberts downed the home team's first triple for a 7-5 lead. Popovic answered from the arc to take a lead back for L. Rytas, but Partizan's aggressive defense soon changed the scoreboard again. McCalebb's third layup was followed by consecutive steals and dunks by Jan Vesely and Roberts, prompting an L. Rytas timeout at 13-8. The visitors then went inside to Bjelica for a three-point play, which Partizan answered by doing the same with Maric, for a pair of free throws at 15-11. Partizan's defense took over again while Roberts hit free throws, Vesely drilled a triple and McCalebb blasted to the rim. When a lob to Maric extended the run to 9-0, Partizan had a double-digit lead, 23-13. Only free throws fell for several minutes until Jomantas connected on a triple to end the first quarter with 26-18 on the scoreboard.
Partizan opened the second quarter in style, with Maric finding Vesely for a big slam. A triple by Zavackas got L. Rytas within 28-21, but his next try was Partizan's fifth blocked shot already, and it sent Rasic the other way for his own triple to make it 31-21. After free throws by Bjelica, Partizan got bad news as Maric left the floor with a knee injury. Kecman buouyed the fans with a triple, but Zavackas matched it for a 34-26 score. After Zavackas scored again at 34-28, more bad news for Partizan, as McCalebb committed his third foul, but Strahinja Milosevic calmed the hosts with a basket and soon Vranes added a layup at 38-30. Next, Roberts stole the show with a short jumper and a spinning dunk on the break to restore Partizan's double-digit lead, 42-31, and force an L. Rytas timeout. Jomantas answered for the guests with a deep, deep triple, Partizan went to Vranes for a basket. Kecman made it 46-34 before Popovic added a new triple and Gecevicius a free throw for L. Rytas. Free throws by Roberts left Partizan in full charge, 50-39, at halftime.
Just a single free throw fell during almost 3 mintues after the break until a Serbian duo on L. Rytas, Bjelica and Dejan Borovnjak, connected for a reverse layup. When Gecevicius then stole and hit a layup, the visitors were within 51-43. Roberts got to the line to make 2 free throws before Vesely found Rasic in the corner for a fastbreak triple at 56-43. The slow scoring pace was perfect now for Partizan, so that even when L. Rytas had a 1-6 run on 4 points by Jomantas, the hosts still led 57-49. When Rasic rattled in another triple, the lead was back to double digits, 60-49. Next, Popovic and McCalebb exchanged layups. L. Rytas was in a zone defense now, and got a three-point play from Baynes, but he then committed his fifth foul and Vranes took advantage by backing down Bjelica, who had 4 fouls, for a 66-55 lead. Popovic stuck a triple to lift the visitors' hopes. Petar Bozic matched it for Partizan, then after fouling Popovic, who hit 3 free throws, made up for his mistake with a buzzer-beating triple for a 72-61 scoreboard after 30 minutes.
The crowd, already out of their seats for most of the game, almost brought down the Pionir Arena roof when Vesely opened the fourth quarter with a huge fastbreak dunk. L. Rytas took a new timeout to find a way to score, but when the visitors tried the paint, Vranes was there with 2 blocks in a row. Gecevicius didn't get the first points of the quarter for L. Rytas until almost 4 minutes were gone, and then Vranes answered at the free throw line. When Rasic measured and hit his fifth three-pointer in 6 tries, it was 79-63 with 5 minutes and little doubt left about the outcome. Since Partizan had lost by 22 in the first game in Vilnius, the hosts now searched to eclipse that margin by one, since 23 points was the magic difference to assure a Top 16 tiebreak advantage. L. Rytas was stuck on 2 points in the quarter through 7 minutes as Rasic buried another triple at 86-63 to give Partizan the needed edge with under 2 mintues left. The onslaught continued, to the crowd's delight, until the very last second when, after a timeout, Kecman beat the buzzer with a triple off an inbounds pass for the final 30-point margin in a victory that assured more Euroleague games at Pionir Arena this season.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010