Justice has a name tonight: Saulius Stombergas. The Lithuanian forward of Tau Ceramica never shot so sweetly as he did Wednesday in scoring 39 points in three quarters to give Tau a 65-90 victory over AEK in Athens in the replay of their Game 1 opener. It took a lot of controversy and another trip to Athens, but Tau now has the 2-0 lead it deserved in this best-of-five semifinal series. Tau played with an admirable righteousness to get that original victory back, but it helped that Stombergas shot with sonar. His 9 three-point strikes in as many attempts set a Euroleague record, but were all the more amazing because of his timing. Every time that AEK got within a few points of Tau, Stombergas was their to knock down a three and keep the home team at bay. Better late than never, this series goes to Vitoria, Spain for Game 3 on Saturday, with a fourth game, if necessary, to be played there on Monday night. "That was the very best game of my career," Stombergas said after. "Our job is not easy even though we lead by 2-0. AEK is a very good defensive team with character, and I think they'll come to our court to play their game." Stombergas was joined in the record book by his teammate, point guard Elmer Bennett, who dished out 13 assists, almost double the total of AEK.
Tau's remarkable string of playoff victories - six in a row officially, three of those in Athens - was extended by the hand of a player who had averaged just 4 points in his previous three playoff games. Stombergas had more than that in the first 5 minutes on Wednesday, and kept getting better by the minute. The first trio of three-pointers fell among his 12 points in the first quarter. The second was all three-pointers sandwiched into 17-8 run that gave Tau full control. But only after halftime did he bring out the real fireworks: two three-pointers that backed off AEK from a 42-49 encroachment; three straight two-pointers, two of them off turnovers, when AEK had the audacity to come back to within 60-54; and for good measure, his ninth three-pointer of the night to end the quarter with 18 points and the evening with 39. All told out of 18 shots - 4 two-pointers, 8 three-pointers and 5 free throws - Stombergas had only 1 miss all night, at the foulline. "And I saved something for Kinder," he said afterward, referring to the team Tau will meet in the Euroleague Finals if it wins one more game against AEK.
Stombergas had a lot of help. Center Victor Alexander had a monster game of 18 points and 13 rebounds, establishing an inside force to balance the outside sniping of Stombergas. Working his way between the two - not to mention up, over and around the AEK defense - was Bennett, among whose 13 assists were several of those laser three-pointer of Stombergas. "From the first minute, we were calm," said Tau forward Fabricio Oberto. "The nervousness was going in AEK's direction. Even in the third quarter, when they drew within six points, we had calmness, and that is where the victory came from."
In theory, AEk was the rested team, having opted out of its Greek League game over the weekend, and Tau an exhausted one, having played Sunday in Spain and then made a hasty trip back to Athens after the decision of the Euroleague judge to void the original Game 1 result - an official 75-74 victory for AEK - because the winning basket had been scored after the buzzer in overtime. But for all of this game, but especially the first five minutes each of the first and fourth quarters, when AEK couldn't make a single field goal, the roles of rested home team and tired visitor seemed reversed.
About the only thing that kept the first quarter from coming out perfect for Tau is that it lasted a half a minute too long. The first good for the visitors was their side of the scoreboard lighting up on the first shot from Stombergas, a three-pointer. Then Tau's defense shook off a series of quick fouls on its big men, two of which sent Fabricio Oberto to the bench after four minutes. Fouls or not, Tau held AEK without a field goal for the first 6 minutes, allowing only two free throws by Betts and one each by Vrbica Stefanov and Demos Dikoudis. Meanwhile, Stombergas was hitting his second and third shots, including another three, to grow a Tau lead of 4-15.
When Betts finally broke the ice by completing a post-up move with AEK's first basket, Stombergas unloaded at the other end with his third three-pointer, which followed an offensive rebound by Victor Alexander. While passing the ball out, Alexander fell on the left ankle of AEK's only sharpshooter, Ibrahim Kutluay, who had owned the first half in both Game 2 and the original Game 1. Now, Kutluay went to the bench, and Tau went to work, raising its lead to 8-21 in the final minute. With 30 seconds left, however, Nikos Hatzis nailed a three-pointer, AEK's first of the game. Then in the final 5 seconds, Bennett fouled Hatzis on another three-point attempt and Tau coach Dusko Ivanovic received a technical foul for arguing the call. Three of the resulting 5 free throws went in and the lead was down into single digits at 14-23 after a quarter.
When AEK tried to shake its sluggishness and pulled within 25-18 early in the second, BOOM, there was Stombergas answering with another three-pointer, his fourth. In the next three minutes, two more went off: BOOM! BOOM! With two baskets in between by Alexander and one each by Luis Scola and Laurent Foirest, it amounted to a 17-8 run that left AEK shaken, stirred and looking at a 24-42 deficit. Only a three-point play in the final 20 seconds by Dikoudis cut the sting a bit and the halftime deficit Tau's total was already more points than anyone could expect in one half of this series, and if Kutluay hadn't done it before, 21 in a half by Stombergas might have been downright unthinkable.
But what was really surprising at that point were the defenses. AEK came out playing its physical style, but after getting Tau in foul trouble, couldn't make many stops, certaily not on Stombergas. Meanwhile, Tau's defense was not only stopping Kutluay almost cold, but was forcing AEK, the most careful team in the Euroleague with the ball, into 10 first-half turnovers.
But if AEK doesn't seem a comeback type of offense, it certainly tried. Problem was that every time it did, Stombergas was there to answer. In the third quarter, AEK cut the lead to 42-49 on a three-point shot by Kutluay and three-point play by Betts. So here came three pointers number 6 and 7 for Stombergas. AEK fought back again, this time courtesy of back-to-back threes by Stefanov, to within 54-60. Tau called a tiemout, and the only surprise afterward was that Stombergas posted someone up for the first basket. Then he finished a fastbreak. Then he blocked a shot and finished another break. Tau was up 54-66, but just to make sure he drained the ninth three-pointer to close out the quarter. Tau was leading 55-69, AEK was in shock and the series was back where it should have been, just a couple days late.
Wednesday, April 4, 2001