The Group C race took on a whole different look after a brand new Unicaja player, Jesus Lazaro, landed a three-pointer with 6 seconds left to beat visiting Tau Ceramica 78-76 at home in Malaga on Wednesday. Lazaro had been in the Spanish second division until recently, but his shot completed a double-digit second-half comeback and changed the Top 16 outlook in Group C. Unicaja is now 3-6, same as Pau-Orthez, both in sixth place, a victory behind Tau, fifth with a 4-5 record. Jorge Garbajosa was the game-long hero for Unicaja, finishing with 26 points and 9 rebounds. J.R. Bremer added 13 points for the winners, Fran Vazquez and Berni Rodriguez 10 each. Arvydas Macijauskas had 20 points for Tau, Jose Manuel Calderon 16 and Andrew Betts 15.
Unicaja showed up with Francis Perujo filling the shooting guard spot due to the absences of injured perimeter players Walter Herrmann, Stephane Risacher and Pepe Sanchez. Although Garbajosa nailed his first three-point attempt, the hosts struggled from behind the arc, missed the next 4 shots. Tau didn't take advantage, however, and could score only at the free throw line. Pablo Prigioni came on at point guard for Tau and powered a 0-6 run to put the guests ahead 7-10 after 7 minutes.Tau kept a slight margin thanks to Betts, unstoppable under the rims, but Unicaja put more pressure on the ball and tied 15-15 after 9 minutes. A buzzer-beating layup by Bremer gave the lead back to Unicaja to finish the quarter, 19-17.
Kornel David tied for Tau on the second quarter's first possession, but almost 2 scoreless minutes followed. Unicaja's Berni Rodriguez ended the drought with a block on Robert Conley that led to an electric fast break layup. The visitors kept pushing inside to Betts, but Unicaja found some calm with Lazaro at point guard and retained a short lead through minute 15. The lead widened thanks to 5 straight points by Garbajosa, but Macijauskas showed up and scored 7 to prevent Unicaja from escaping. With Tiago Splitter and David inside, Tau started dominating the paint now. David added 4 points for a 29-36 Tau lead that forced a Unicaja timeout. That didn't prevent Tau from tacking on another point to lead 30-38 at the half.
Travis Hansen extended Tau's margin double digits with an amazing baseline dunk right after intermission. Unicaja tried to raise the tempo using three guards together: Rodriguez, Lazaro and Bremer. Tau still recovered a solid margin at 35-44 after a nice layup by Calderon. Knowing it could do little against Tau's frontcourt, Unicaja kept trying to run as fast as possible, and the insistence found its reward in a 7-2 run capped by a Vazquez layup that reduced the gap to only 42-46 after 27 minutes, giving the fans a new reason to cheer. Tau found an answer in Macijauskas, who nailed a pair of jump shots but Unicaja, despite a fourth foul on Vazquez, stayed within a basket of the lead, 48-50, after 30 minutes.
Bremer tied the game to start the quarter, and soon another newcomer, center Sean Rooks, was scoring his first basket and the additional free throw for a 55-52 Unicaja advantage with 8 minutes to go. Now Tau used three guards, too, as Prigioni, Calderon and Macijauskas rallied the guests to retake a 55-56 lead midway through the quarter. Tau seemed in control after a three-pointer by Macijauskas and a difficult layup by Calderon, but then Garbajosa took over for Unicaja. His first three-pointer got the hosts within 64-65 and his second, a minute later, was good for a 71-70 lead. Carlos Cabezas capped the comeback with a fastbreak layup for a 73-70 Unicaja advantage entering in the last minute. Tau then got free throws from Macijauskas, and after his steal, 2 more from Prigioni to lead 73-74. Garbajosa then drew Splitter's fourth foul and made the free throws for a 75-74 Unicaja lead with 40 seconds left. Tau went inside, too, where Betts was fouled and didn't wast the chance to make 2 and give the lead back to Tau. With its last possession, Unicaja looked for the three-pointer, and Cabezas found Lazaro, who became the hero of the night by sinking a monster shot with 6 seconds left that raised the roof in Malaga. Tau tried to score but missed three shots in a row as time expired and the Group C race got a lot tighter.
Wednesday, January 5, 2005