Tau Ceramica made the homecourt advantage it stole earlier in the series count in full when it rolled past Regal FC Barcelona 69-62 on Tuesday at Fernando Buesa Arena in Vitoria, Spain, to claim a 2-1 advantage in their best-of-five Quarterfinal Playoffs. Tau can clinch its fifth consecutive Final Four appearance when it hosts Game 4, too, on Thursday. The hosts took advantage of Barcelona missing injured superstar Juan Carlos Navarro by establishing early leads and turning back every second-half comeback attempt by the visitors. The last of those Barcelona rallies brought the visitors within 63-58 with under 2 minutes left, but a turnover by the guests led to Igor Rakocevic hitting a huge baseline jumper over shot-block expert Fran Vazquez to seal the victory. Rakocevic led the winners with 17 points, while Tiago Splitter added 13, Pete Mickeal 11 and Mirza Teletovic 10. Barcelona got 20 points from Jaka Lakovic, but none of the other visitors got into double digits. In the end, Tau withstood 22 turnovers by shooting 57% on two-pointers and dominating the boards, 35-29, to move within a step of another Final Four!
Looking to protect Splitter from early foul trouble, Dusko Ivanoviv started with Mirza Teletovic and Will McDonald in the frontcourt, as Barcelona used Gianluca Basile as a replacement for Navarro. The changes seemed to work better for the hosts in the beginning, as a pair of layups by Fakocevic and Prigioni, followed by a fastbreak basket from Pete Mickeal gave Tau a quick 6-0 lead. But Barcelona didn’t panic and broke the trend thanks to a monster dunk by Daniel Santiago. Lubos Barton took over then to tie the score, 6-6, less than a minute later. Defenses prevailed after that, as neither team was able to find momentum on offense. Tau struggled in its half-court offense, finding points only from the free throw line, while Barcelona missed some open shots and got no second-chance points despite its frontcourt size advantage. A three-pointer by Jaka Lakovic and tip-in by Fran Vazquez were enough to maintain a tie, 11-11, after 8 minutes left, but Tau found an unexpected boost as Will McDonald drilled a triple from the top of the circle to cap a 5-0 last-minute run to bring the hosts ahead 16-11 at the end of one quarter.
The hosts kept rocking into the second quarter, amassing a nine-point lead behind layups by Splitter and Fernando San Emeterio. Andre Barrett came to the rescue for Barcelona with a three-pointer as the visitors switched to zone defense to slow down the game rhythm of the game and prevent Tau from fast-breaking. But the main problem for Barcelona was on offense, where its shooters had hit only a 20% of their three-point tries midway through the second quarter. A basket-plus-free throw by Sergi Vidal boosted Tau's lead to 23-14, forcing an urgent timeout by Barcelona head coach Xavi Pascual. After that talk, David Andersen, Roger Grimau and Santiago made consecutive buckets to take the guests within 23-20 in the blink of an eye. But the visitors' comeback stopped there, as Tau reacted with an enhanced defensive effort. Barcelona would go scoreless for the last 4 minutes before the half, collecting turnovers and missed open shots, which allowed Tau to smoothly re-gain a more comfortable margin, 29-20, behind free throws by Rakocevic and Splitter going into the half.
Fran Vazquez opened the third quarter with a turn-around jumper for Barcelona, after which triples by his teammates, Lakovic and Gianluca Basile, boosted the visitors. Tau based its offense around Splitter, who added a two-handed dunk and a hook shot to keep hosts leading 33-28 after 22 minutes. Barcelona seemed to have taken over the pace of the game, but Mickeal first and then Teletovic, with a monster three-pointer, raised Tau's difference again to 9 points, 39-30, midway through the third quarter. The game turned back into a half-court battle, with both teams showing that nerves were taking over. The defenses ruled for several minutes until Grimau and Barton, with a layup and corner three-pointer, respectively, reduced the gap to 43-37. In the third quarter's final minute, however, Ilyasova missed a fastbreak dunk that would have cut the difference further, and Pablo Prigioni punished that mistake with a buzzer-beating triple that restored Tau's nine-point lead, 46-37, after 30 minutes.
Mickeal opened fire in the fourth quarter and Teletovic buried a triple to extend Tau's lead to 51-41. Lakovic rose up then, however, hitting his own triple at 51-44 with 7 minutes left. Out of a Tau timeout, Vidal hit free throws and Splitter drew an offensive foul on Santiago before a shot-clock beater by Rakocevic made it 55-44 Tau. Barcelona looked for a change, using Grimau defense on Prigioni and feeding Andersen insidefor two baskets. Santiago followed with free throws, but the hosts found quick answers through a Teletovic fast-break dunk and a short jumper by Rakocevic to keep a safe margin, 61-52, with 3 minutes to go. Baskets were hard to come by after that, as both teams scored only from the free-throw line. Lakovic and Andersen combined for 3 of 4 foul shots, but Prigioni's pair kept Tau ahead 63-55 with 2 minutes remaining. Lakovic made it a six-point game, 63-57, and drew a flagrant foul on Rakocevic that seemed to put Tau's lead in real danger. Lakovic hit only 1 of 2 foul shots, however, and after Andersen was called for travelin, Rakocevic hit his step-back jumper over Vazquez to calme the hosts at 65-58 entering the last minute. Barcelona didn’t give up, though. Lakovic came up big again with easy layup and found 2 more free throws right after that to make it 65-62 with 26 seconds to go. Basile fouled Rakocevic, whose free throws extended the difference to 67-62, forcing Barcelona to foul again. When Mickeal made his free throws, too, the outcome was sealed, and Tau was one step far from making its fifth consecutive Final Four appearance.
Tuesday, March 31, 2009