Backed by what seemed like a whole country packed into Pionir Arena, Partizan Igokea sent its best-of-three quarterfinal playoff series to the limit when it blasted visiting Tau Ceramica 76-55 in Game 2 at home in Belgrade, Serbia on Thursday. Now tied 1-1, the series goes back to Vitoria, Spain for a do-or-die third game on Tau's court next Thursday. Partizan's defense and resiliency were the main factors. The defense harassed Tau's shooters all night, inside and out, while Partizan also ruled the backboards with a 37-28 rebounding advantage. And when Tau got close a couple times in the second half, Partizan's young guns Nikola Pekovic and Novica Velickovic shut the door. Pekovic finished with 19 points for the winners, many in clutch situations. Velickovic shined with a double-double of 17 points and 12 rebounds. Uros Tripkovic added 14 points and Milenko Tepic 11 for the winners, who needed only 9 points from Milt Palacio, who received his March MVP award before the game. Only Igor Rakocevic, with 15 points, was able to score in double figures for Tau, which was held to 37.8% two-point and 31.5% three-point shooting.
Tripkovic got Partizan started before the hosts went inside twice to Pekovic to take a 6-2 advantage. An offensive rebound soon let Rakocevic bomb from downtown, however, for Tau's first lead, 6-7. Tepic answered from the same distance for the hosts, but after Pete Mickeal tied for Tau, Partizan surged ahead for its first big advantage. Pekovic started it, while Velickovic and Palacio followed with big triples that opened a 17-9 gap and forced a Tau timeout. It didn't help much. After Mickeal's next shot rolled out, Velickovic hit a fastbreak layup before Tepic posted up, scored and go the free throw with it as the lead ballooned to 22-9. Rakocevic and Mickeal combined for Tau to lower the difference to 25-15 after 10 minutes.
Rakocevic and Tripkovic traded baskets to open the second quarter. Mickeal got to the line again, but Tripkovic took a kickout from Pekovic and nailed an open triple at 30-19. A high-wire up-and-down exchange ended with Tepic scoring on the break and forcing another Tau timeout. McDonald and James Singleton steadied the guests with baskets inside, although in between, Palacio backed down Pablo Prigioni for his own. Both defenses otherwise forced difficult shots until Simas Jasaitis dunked on the break and Mirza Teletovic drove for another basket, lowering the difference to single digits again, 34-27. After a timeout, Partizan got a basket back, but Prigioni found Jasaitis with a killer pass for a triple before the buzzer that left a 36-31 score at halftime.
Tau kept inching closer after the half as Rakocevic hit a basket and Teletovic drilled from downtown to make it 38-36. Pekovic kept the hosts safe with a hook shot and Velickovic added a transition basket . Rakocevic made 1 of 2 free throws, but Tau left Velickovic alone and he buried a triple at 45-37. While Tau's defense stalled the hosts, Tiago Splitter and Rakocevic combined for 6 points that again got the visitors on the brink of the lead at 45-43. But to the rescue came Tepic and Pekovic, who combined on 5 straight points to save Partizan again at 49-43. Tau struck back quickly as Prigioni fed Teletovic for a layup, stole and swung the ball to Jasaitis for a corner triple to make it 49-48. But Partizan was just as aggressive, feeding Pekovic for an easy basket while Palacio drove to score and hit the bonus free throw to end the quarter at 54-48.
Partizan started the final quarter as it does most, working the ball to Pekovic for another inside basket. But it was Kecman measuring a shot perfectly from downtown a couple minutes later that brought the house down with a new double-digit lead, 59-48. McDonald got two back at the line, but Tepic then stripped Rakocevic and fed Velickovic on the break. After a timeout, Jasaitis settled Tau with a new triple at 61-50, but Tripkovic put back a Partizan miss as the lead rose to 13 points with 5 minutes left. When Velickovic appeared at the top of the circle and buried another triple, it was 66-50 and the crowd had seen all it needed to. Partizan knew the series wasn't over, however, and continued playing with full energy, going up by 21 points, 73-52, on another Pekovic basket in the next-to-last minute. Kecman added a three-point play after that and Planinic hit a triple at the buzzer as plans were being made for the return to Vitoria for Game 3.
Thursday, April 3, 2008