At the halfway point of the regular season, the largest lead by any first-place team in the Euroleague belongs to Unicaja after it outgunned visiting Lietuvos Rytas by 91-84 on Thursday in Malaga, Spain. Unicaja is a perfect 5-0 after the first leg of games in Group B, two victories ahead of both Lietuvos Rytas and Olympiacos, who are tied now at 3-2 each. In an offensive roller-coaster of a game, Unicaja saw seven of its players score between 9 and 16 points to outlast a second-half rally by L. Rytas. Omar Cook led the winners with 16 points and 6 assists, with his late layup and pass to Taquan Dean for a triple finally shutting the door on L. Rytas. Joel Freeland follwed with 15 points, Carlos Jimenez 11 and 9 rebounds, while Dean and young Cesar Lima scored 10 each. L. Rytas came back from 15 behind in the third quarter to within a single point in the fourth, but couldn't get over the hump to grab the lead. Arturas Jomantas pumped in 16 points for the visitors, Bojan Popovic and Dejan Borovnjak 15 each, Milko Bjelica 12 and Steponas Babrauskas 11.
A nice reverse by Jomantas opened the scoring and was immediately answered by Freeland finishing a fast-paced attack. Popovic went coast-to-coast for L. Rytas and scored again at 4-6. Cook's first triple supplied Unicaja's first lead, but Bjelica's 3 points put L. Rytas back up, 7-8, as the scoring pace got even quicker. Jomantas kept attacking the rim for a pair of layups before Dean hit his first shot, in transition, and was followed by Jimenez drilling from downtown to close the gap at 12-13. Bjelica pounded inside for another basket, and after a TV timeout, Jimenez hit free throws. The world champion veteran wasn't done, however. Next, he lined up in the corner and swished the go- ahead triple at 17-15. Again on the break, Dean found Lima for a jump-hook, after which Shammond Williams buried a step-back triple that made it a 10-0 run and a 22-15 edge for Unicaja. L. Rytas needed a timeout, after which Gecevicius brought the visitors back to life with his own step-back shot from the arc, but Lima got loose for another fastbreak basket and recently-signed Larry Lewis, the Euroleague's oldest player at 40, made it 26-18 at the foul line. L. Rytas had a couple seconds left, however, enough in this game for Babrauskas to bury a baseline jumper, cutting the difference to 26-21 after 10 minutes.
Lima kept the hosts rolling with a layup and free throws to open the second quarter by widening the lead to 32-23 before allowing Lewis, his elder by almost double the years, to do the honors of putting the lead into double digits. Freeland's next shot made it 36-23, prompting another L. Rytas timeout. The visitors came out in a zone, but Blanco beat the shot-clock buzzer with a layup. Popovic now sparked L. Rytas with a big reverse layup with the free throw at 38-28. After he exchanged triples with Bjelica, Cook toyed with the L. Rytas defense on a rainbow alley-oop pass to Freeland that made it 43-31. Jomantas returned in force then with a three-pointer and a pair of free throws that suddenly had the lead down to single digits, 45-36. Cook matched the free throws, however, and Jiri Welsch's driving basket let Unicaja take a 49-39 lead into the half.
As L. Rytas tried to lower the difference further on two-pointers by Donatas Zavackas and Bjelica early in the third quarter, Unicaja answered from downtown, where Cook and Freeland both hit from. At 55-43, L. Rytas tried a timeout, but soon the Cook-to-Freeland combination worked for another alley-oop. Cook, on fire, wedged a triple between the rim and the glass, but when Unicaja got the ball back, he put it up again, hitting nothing but the net for a 60-45 Unicaja lead. Popovic drove and Borovnjak got the visitors within 60-49, but missed the free throw, leaving the door open for Blanco to boost Unicaja's lead from the arc, although Babrauskas answered with the same shot. Popovic again went full-court, ducked his head and hit the layup plus a free throw, dropping the difference to single digits again, 63-55. Despite 5 free throws by Williams, Blanco and Lewis, L. Rytas kept coming with layups by Borovnjak and Jomantas, those topped off by another triple from Babrauskas that suddenly had the visitors as close as 68-62, prompting a Unicaja timeout. Popovic got to the line this time and cut the difference to 68-64 after three quarters.
Berni Rodriguez and Babrauskas traded three-point basket-plus-free throw combos to start the final quarter, whose score now read 71-69 as tension filled the court. Freeland relieved it for the home fans with a hook shot, but Borovnjak kept at his scoring, and soon Jomantas rolled to the rim for a layup to make it 74-73 less than 10 minutes since L. Rytas had trailed by 15. Jimenez got to the line to give Unicaja some breathing space. Then Cook rebounded his own miss and fed Dean for an open triple at 79-73. L. Rytas was not giving in, though, as Gecevicius stepped up from downtown, and after a free throw by Jomantas, it was soon 80-77. The gunslinging continued with a layup by Welsch, but this time Unicaja followed it with free throws by Dean and a layup by Lima to make it 86-77. After a timeout, L. Rytas used a pick-and-roll to spring Borovnjak for a layup and the free throw on Lima's fifth foul at 85-80. But Cook calmed the nervous fans in Malaga with a layup straight down the middle at 88-80. Under 2 minutes remained, but when four Unicaja passes ended with Dean blasting a triple at 91-84, the fans started celebrating their team's undefeated status halfway through the regular season.
Thursday, November 26, 2009