|BK Ventspils took a step forwards to becoming the first Latvian team to play the Euroleague since 1961 by downing Benetton Gioco Digitale 78-73 in the first leg of the Qualifying Round 1 in Riga on Tuesday. Ventspils has a five-point lead as the series moves to Treviso, Italy for the second and last game on Friday. The winner by aggregate score after the two games will advance to the second qualifying round next week. Big man Aaron Pettway put the winners on his back and finished with a monster double-double: 20 points on 8-for-10 two-pointers, 17 rebounds and 3 blocks. Mareks Jurevicus added 13 points for Ventspils, Dairis Bertans had 12 while Janis Strelnieks scored 11 points and dished 5 assists. Daniel Hackett led Benetton with 13 points. Sandro Nicevic and Gary Neal each added 11 for the guests. Ventspis had full control of the game for 35 minutes and led by as much as 71-58 midway through the fourth quarter. CJ Wallace and Jasmin Hukic fueled Benetton's comeback to within 75-73, but Bertans and Jurevicus allowed all Ventspils fans to celebrate a big home win in the end. Even when some Latvian teams took part in preliminary rounds without reaching the Euroleague regular season in the 1990s, no team from this country has played Europe's signature competition since ASK made it to the two-way finals against CSKA 48 years ago.
Bertans got Ventspils going with an outstanding driving dunk that Cartier Martin matched with a four-meter jumper. Pettway got the crowd involved with a three-point play, as Benetton could not find its scoring rhythm early. Janis Strelnieks and Martin traded layups but a jumper by Bertans gave Ventspils a 9-4 lead. Daniel Hackett took over with a layup-plus-free throw in transition, as Ventspils tried to keep feeding Pettway down low. Jurevicus and Hackett traded baskets but Berzins made foul shots for a 13-10 score. Donatas Motejiunas came off the bench and immediately hit a jump hook that Martin followed with free throws to give Benetton its first lead, 13-14. Pettway sank a turnaround jumper that Motejiunas erased with free throws. Then, however, Ronalds Zakis came off the bench to rescue Ventspils with a big dunk, a triple and a put-back layup in a 12-1 run that Pettway capped with a wild three-point play. All of a sudden, Ventspils had a double-digit lead, 27-17, after 10 minutes.
Zakis picked up his third foul early in the second quarter, leaving Ventspils without a scoring reference. Both teams soon entered the foul bonus and tried to make the most out of it. Berzins hit 4-of-4 foul shots to keep Ventspils way ahead, 30-20. Both teams tried to play more physical to go to the foul line as often as possible. Neal stepped up with a put-back basket and free throws to bring Benetton back to life, 31-25. Youngster Andrea De Nicolao took over with a coast-to-coast layup that Strelnieks matched with foul shots. Davor Kus buried Benetton's first three-pointer but Strelnieks answered from downtownin a 7-0 Ventspils run that Berzins capped with a layup that gave the hosts some fresh air, 40-30. Benetton could not find the way to the basket while a jumper by Lauris Blaus made it an 11-point game, 42-31. Bertans got the crowd involved with a wild triple while Lauris Blaus added an easy layup to give the hosts a safe margin, 47-35, at halftime.
Nicevic tried to ignite Benetton's comeback with a close-in jumper after the break. Hackett soon dunked it off a midcourt steal to bring Benetton within single digits, 47-38. Pettway kept pacing Ventspils with a power layup and Strelnieks nailed one from downtown for a 52-40 score. Martin sank a mid-range jumper off the dribble that a red-hot Pettway matched with a backdoor layup. Neal buried a five-meter shot and Hackett sank a triple to make it a seven-point game, 54-47, as Benetton had finally adjusted its defense with Wallace amd Nicevic together on court. Pettway - who else? - hit a jumper and Blaus added a layup-plus-foul, as Lee left the game once he picked up his second unsportsmanlike foul. Ventspils kept rolling, as Jurevicus followed a big triple with consecutive baskets for a 68-53 lead. Benetton could not find open shots now but Hukic sank a corner triple that brought his team within 68-56 after 30 minutes.
An unstoppable Pettway scored again early in the fourth quarter and even when Nicevic answered with free throws, he didn't find much help around. Ventspils had started to opt for long possessions to run the game clock down, but it could find easy shots now. The hosts called timeout to stick to its game plan and even when Benetton stayed intense in defense, the guests failed to find easy points in the other end. Hukic buried another one from downtown to bring Benetton within 71-61, as Ventspils kept missing driving shots now late in each possession. Wallace joined the three-point shootout to make Ventspils call another timeout at 71-64. Nicevic scored down low while Wallace added a hook shot to the guests back in the game, 71-68, after a 0-10 run. Bertans rescued Ventspils with free throws that Wallace matched with an easy basket for a 73-70 score with 2 minutes to go. Blaus, Hukic and Bertans made free throws but Nicevic took over with a big basket in the low post for a 75-73 Benetton deficit. Hukic missed the go-ahead three-pointer while Bertans sealed the outcome from the foul line, 77-73. Kus picked up a late foul that allowed Jurevicus to fix the final score.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009