Tau Ceramica is back in the Euroleague Final Four. Tau will make its fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four after defeating Partizan Igokea 85-68 on Wednesday night at the Fernando Buesa Arena in Vitoria, Spain, to win their best-of-three Quarterfinal Playoffs series 2-1. Tau will face CSKA Moscow in the semifinal game next month in Madrid. After the Serbian champs controlled the paint in the first two games, Tiago Splitter and co. turned the tables on Wednesday. Splitter set the tone in the first half with 16 points and 8 rebounds, while denying Partizan star Nikola Pekovic even a field goal as the hosts took a 38-32 halftime lead. Partizan hung around in the third quarter, but Tau ran away with the game in the fourth as head coach Dusko Vujosevic was slapped with a technical and Pekovic fouled out early, allowing the hosts to enjoy the final minutes as they cruised to an important win. Splitter finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds to pace Tau, Pete Mickeal came through with a season-high 19 points, Igor Rakocevic added 15 and Mirza Teletovic 10 for Tau. Uros Tripkovic led Partizan with 16 points and Milenko Tepic and Novica Velickovic scored 14 apiece. Pekovic had his worst shooting game of the season going just 1 for 6 and finished with 9 points.
Despite a block by Zoran Planinic over Milt Palacio on the first play of the game, the first team to score was the visiting side when Tripkovic hit from the free-throw line, followed by 2 more from Pekovic for an early 0-3 lead. Tau struggled because of a slow offense, as Velickovic punished the home team with his first triple to widen the gap. Although Planinic managed to break the trend for the hosts by banking a shot off the turnaround, Partizan dominated under the boards at both ends, good for a 2-8 edge after three minutes. The Partizan shooters were not accurate, but their mistakes were not too serious as Partizan kept collecting second-chance points and led 7-14 midway through the first period. Rakocevic woke up for his first triple to raise people from their seats, and followed it with a pair of free throws to make it a 2-point game with three minutes to go. Splitter got it tighter with another free throw, but Tepic came to the rescue with a basket-plus-foul that delayed Tau’s comeback. Tau kept rocking anyway, stopping Pekovic in the paint and preventing the Partizan shooters from getting open shots. A pair of free throws by Pekovic closed the first quarter with Partizan leading 16-19.
Splitter scored on a hook shoot to make it again a 1-point game, breaking the zone defense of Partizan. Teletovic then hit a corner three for the first Tau lead, 21-19, after 13 minutes. Partizan couldn’t find its way to the basket and remained scoreless for three minutes, as consecutive fouls called on Pekovic and Slavko Vranes hurt. Splitter took advantage of the third foul of Vranes to raise the lead to 23-19, turning the game upside down. Although Tripkovic stopped the drought for the guests with a triple, Sergi Vidal kept Tau ahead with a nice layup against Vranes. Things got even worse for the visitors after Vranes had to sit down because of his fourth foul, forcing Pekovic to replace him. Trikpovic hit from downtown again, but was quickly answered by Teletovic to retain the lead for the home team. Tau’s target was clear at that point; to feed Splitter inside looking for the third foul on Pekovic. The center didn’t draw any fouls, but did collect 2 points, followed by free throws by Pablo Prigioni that made it a 6-point game with less than three minutes to go in the half. Prigioni scored again, but Partizan kept breathing thanks to 4 points in a row by Tepic, who drew an unsportsmanlike foul from Will McDonald. Tau’s reaction was quick, as Prigioni fed Splitter twice to raise lead to 38-29 entering the last minute. The visitors seemed to be about to collapse, but a late triple by Milt Palacio sent the game to the locker rooms with a shorter margin, 38-32, for Tau.
Both teams increased intensity even more after the break, so the pace of the game slowed down in the early going. Tepic continued to be the go-to guy for Partizan, punishing Rakocevic’s defense. On the other side, Tau took advantage of the physical advantage of Planinic and Mickeal over Palacio and Dusan Kecman to stay ahead, 40-36. Tau found the boost it needed with a triple by Rakocevic, followed by 5 points in a row from Mickeal that gave Tau a double-digit lead, 48-38. Partizan tried to break the hosts’ momentum by switching to zone defense and it worked for a while. Consecutive points by Tripkovic and Pekovic got Partizan within 50-44, but Teletovic ended the drought with a corner three for a safe 53-44 edge midway through the third quarter. Partizan didn’t panic though as Tepic and Palacio nailed three pointers that made Tau tremble and made it a 5-point game, 58-53, entering the last minute. McDonald took advantage of Vranes’s foul trouble to score a layup and Partizan wasted consecutive possessions that gave Tau a safe margin to close the third period, 60-53.
Vidal opened fire with a nice move under the basket as Partizan returned again to man-to-man defense. Trikpovic hit from downtown and gave the visitors some hope, but Mickeal answered immediately from the same distance for a 65-56 home lead after 32 minutes. The temperature kept rising both off an on the court and that benefited home side, especially after McDonald beat the shot clock for a basket-plus-foul, followed by a technical foul called on coach Vujosevic that definitely broke the guests’ spirits. Prigioni sank 2 free throws for a 72-57 advantage with seven minutes to go. At the other end, Partizan wasted 2 free throws of its own and Pekovic fouled out a few seconds later. That was the beginning of the end for Partizan, whose only weapon remaining was outside shooting. It proved useless against Tau’s defense, however, as the home team slowed down game’s tempo, secured the boards at the defensive end and took advantage of Partizan’s absences in the paint to collect easy points and keep a safe margin. The guests came within 79-66 after a three pointer by Velickovic with two minutes to go, but 2 free throws by Planinic and a fastbreak layup by Mickeal were good for an 83-66 edge that ensured the outcome for Tau, whose fans celebrated as it earned another appearance at the Euroleague Final Four.
Wednesday, April 9, 2008