| Despite a new coach, a key injury, last-minute signings and a two-year, 13-game road losing streak, Zalgiris Kaunas roared into the Top 16 from Group A with a resounding 68-76 win over Fenerbahce Ulker in Istanbul, Turkey on Thursday. Zalgiris won its last two games to finish with a 3-7 record in a four-way tie for third place with Fenerbahce, Cibona and Asvel. All teams had gone 3-3 against the others. When the results of those games were added, only 11 points of difference separated third from sixth place. After the third tie-breaker - difference between those four tied teams - was applied, the Top 16 spots went, appropriately, to Thursday's winners. Zalgiris finished in third place in Group A and Cibona, which beat Asvel, fourth. Zalgiris needed to win by 6 points, just to make sure because the Cibona-Asvel game went longer, so a triple by Marcus Brown on the final buzzer proved enough for the visitors to celebrate on-court. Zalgiris had taken big leads early but seemingly put the game out of reach with a 14-25 third quarter after which it led by 17 points. Fenerbahce scored the first 9 points of the fourth quarter, however, but couldn't get closer than 65-71 as time ran out on the hosts. Martynas Pocius led Zalgiris with 18 points, including 4 of 6 shooting from long range. Brown followed with 17 points, Tadas Klimavicius with 13 and Mantas Kalnietis with 11. Zalgiris was without its top rebounder, injured forward Travis Watson, but got 22 minutes from new point guard Aleksandar Capin, who signed the day before and met the team in Istanbul. Fenerbahce got 20 points from its own newly signed point guard, Roko-Leni Ukic. Gordan Giricek added 16 and Tarence Kinsey 11, but ultimately, poor 7-for-29 three-point shooting (24%) hurt the hosts.
Ukic made his presence felt immediately by popping a foul-line jumper to put Fenerbahce up 2-0. Mirza Begic was ready in the paint, converting a drop-step layup, after which Kalnietis scored on the break for the first Zalgiris lead. Dainius Salenga finished the visitors' next break with a triple at 2-7. Omer Onan answered with a short jumper for Fenerbahce, but Brown erased it with his own from the baseline. Kalnietis showed he was ready with a fastbreak triple to up the Zalgiris advantage to 4-12. Oguz Savas got on the board next for Fenerbahce and Ukic joined him with an inside basket that cut the difference to 8-12. Kalnietis was not concerned as he and Ukic traded another bucket each at 10-14. After a timeout, Zalgiris added scorers as Klimavicius converted in the paint, as did Siim-Sander Vene. Kinsey answered for Fenerbahce, but Pocius knocked down his first triple at 12-21. Emir Preldzic saved Fenerbahce by answering from the arc before Kinsey made an acrobatic layup and his missed free throw turned into a basket by Giriceck, suddenly narrowing the gap to 19-21. A technical foul let Brown add free throws for Zalgiris as the visitors held onto a 19-23 advantage after 10 minutes.
Fenerbahce's comeback continued into the second quarter as Giricek blasted a triple to make it 22-24 just before legend Mirsad Turkcan made his first appearance of the season for Fenerbahce. Although Zalgiris went inside twice to Begic to up the lead to 22-27, Turkcan made his presence felt with a put-back. Dueling triples by Klimavicius and Giricek got the Fenerbahce crowd excited, but they went wild when Preldzic assisted Semih Erden for a dunk and free throw, good for a 30-30 tie. Zalgiris responded with patience until finding Pocius in the corner for another three-point swish. After several misses from deep by both teams, Giricek rocked the house with his good one, but Pocius was ready with a come-back triple to keep Zalgiris ahead 33-36. Next time downcourt, Brown also struck from deep and when Pocius went to the basket for the next points, the Zalgiris lead had reached 33-41. Again, Fenerbahce got a breath of air with a three-pointer by Kinsey, but Klimavicius got a basket back at the other end as Zalgiris took a 37-43 advantage into halftime.
Zalgiris could have wilted when Giricek opened the second half with a three-point play to make it 40-43. Instead, the visitors played aggressive offense, with Salenga launching and hitting a triple before Kalnietis and Klimavicius went strong to the hoop for layups to suddenly put the difference into double digits, 40-50. Fenerbahce needed something and Onan gave it, a big triple. Zalgiris was undeterred, however, as Salenga and Kalnietis kept attacking and raising the lead to 43-54. Giricek answered with a layup, but Aleksandar Capin - who met his new team the night before - perfectly fed Klimavicius for a pick-and-roll dunk. Next, Pocius scored inside for a high lead so far of 45-58 for Zalgiris. When Ukic stopped Fenerbahce's bleeding, Capin started it again with a big three-pointer and Klimavicius continued it with another pick-and-roll finish for a whopping 47-63 lead. Even when Kinsey tried to spark Fenerbahce, Brown hit free throws and a step-aside triple that launched Zalgiris into the final quarter ahead by 51-68.
Fenerbahce did exactly what it had to beginning the final quarter. Kinsey sparked things with steal and a quick dunk before Ukic raised the roof with a triple. Capin made just 1 of 3 free throws, before his counterpart, Ukic, went to the basket for a layup and pulled up for a jumper. Suddenly, the 17-point Zalgiris lead was down to 9 points, 60-69, and Zalgiris needed a timeout to discuss it. Zalgiris tried a zone defense and both teams struggled for more than 2 minutes to get any points. The score was stuck on 60-69 until Erden made 2 of 2 free throws. Zalgiris had only a free throw to show for the first 5 minutes of the final quarter, but now Pocius drove hard and got to the foul line, where he made 2 of 2 for a 62-71 scoreboard with under 4 minutes left. Another lull ended with Ukic stealing and converting a scoop shot at 64-71. The Zalgiris offense was completely stuck as Erden hit 1 of 2 free throws at 65-71, but by now the clock had run down to little more than a minute left. Kinsey had an open triple in the corner but missed and Brown kept the rebound until someone fouled him. His 2 for 2 at the line made it 65-73 and then Kalnietis blocked Ukic to assure the victory - but not yet the qualification. Ukic was fouled taking a triple and hit all 3 free throws, putting Fenerbahce up in its potential head-to-head tie against Zalgiris (if Asvel were to have defeated Cibona later). After a timeout with 3 second left, Brown appeared in the corner and let go, hitting nothing but the net to start the celebration for Zalgiris, a most improbable Top 16 qualifier!
Thursday, January 14, 2010