Former ULEB Cup champion Lietuvos Rytas rallied in the final minutes to sieze a spot in the semifinals by downing Strasbourg 72-56 in thrilling fashion at Siemens Arena in Vilnius, Lithuania on Tuesday to win their two-game quarterfinal series. L. Rytas overcame a 13-point deficit from the first leg in Strasbourg and reached its second semifinal round in three ULEB Cup appearances. Marijonas Petravicius and Kareem Rush led the winners with 11 points, but Roberts Stelmahers became the hero and for L. Rytas in the final 3 minutes. Chuck Eidson had 15 points for Strasbourg while Afik Nissim added 13. A short jumper by Eidson brought Strasbourg within 57-52 with less than 3 minutes to go. Three-pointers by Mindaugas Lukauskis, Rush and Stelmahers brought L. Rytas back to life at 66-54. Stelmahers fed Petravicius for an easy basket and soon hit a free throw for a 71-54 margin. The game went down to the wire, as Tomas Delininkaitis hit a free throw that hit the rim, went up and fell down, while Nissim missed a three-pointer that would have tied the series at the buzzer.
L. Rytas started the game with a turnover that Michael Smith converted for a Strasbourg basket. Jomantas soon got the hosts on the scoreboard with a three-point play. Strasbourg found early trouble as Eidson picked up his second foul with just 2 minutes gone and was benched immediately. L. Rytas kept running fast and following Petravicius to a 9-4 lead. Aerick Sanders and Smith stepped up for Strasbourg with 4 points as the game and the crowd eased a bit. The visitors got their first lead as Smith made free throws for a 9-10 score, but L. Rytas took it back with power when Stelmahers, Rush and Arturas Jomantas initiated a 7-0 run to make it 16-10. Strasbourg tried to stay close but a hot Jomantas kept holding L. Rytas ahead, by 20-15 after one quarter.
Eidson started the second quarter with a free throw as injured big man Dirk Madrich was walked off the court. L. Rytas couldn't find a way to finish inside and unsuccesfully tried its luck from downtown until finally, a fresh Delininkaitis came in to drop one from outside. When Andrius Slezas added another bomb, the crowd went wild because L. Rytas needed only 4 points to win the series by then. A timeout didn't help Strasbourg, as Joao Paolo Batista and Slezas scored consecutively to make it 30-16. Afik Nissim and Eidson answered with layups, but Lukauskis drained a triple and kept the hosts' lead healthy at 33-20. Eidson and Nissim scored again to cut the difference to 9 points, but Batista converted a tricky inbound pass and Matthew Nielsen dropped a triple to boost L. Rytas again by 38-24. Nissim saw his free throws matched Batista scored again as L. Rytas sat firmly on the driver's seat, 40-26, at intermission.
Nielsen opened the third quarter with a triple as Eidson answered with a difficult layup, 43-28. L. Rytas wanted to kill the intrigue early but Strasbourg didn't give up as Nissim buried a triple and Sanders hit a semihook at 44-33. The hosts didn't fall asleep, either, as Rush and Petravicius widened the gap to 51-33. Strasbourg needed help now, and got some as Gauthier Darrigand and Eidson stepped up with 7 points that made it 51-40 as L. Rytas stalled on the offensive end. The visitors finally seemed alive as Darrigand and Eidson scored again and cut the margin to 54-46 entering the last 10 minutes.
Darrigand opened the last quarter with an important triple that made it 54-49, setting the stage for a down-to-the-wire battle. L. Rytas had many open shots in a span of 4 minutes but missed all of them. Rush broke the silence with a penetration that kept the hosts ahead 56-50 on the scoreboard but behind by 7 in the series. Strasbourg continued playing great defense in the paint and neutralized all of the L. Rytas efforts. Eidson provided offense, too, as L. Rytas, needing a 14-point win, led only by 5 with 3 minutes on the clock. That all changed in a hurry, as Lukauskis and Rush suddenly buried back-to-back triples for a double-digit difference, 63-52. Nissim hit a fade-away jumper to calm Strasbourg but Stelmahers answered with another from downtown. When Petravicius added a three-point play, L. Rytas had 12 points in four possessions and a 68-54 lead, a point more than needed for the series win. Petravicius blocked Sanders on his next shot attempt and Slezas stepped up with free throws for a 70-54 board with 43 seconds to go as the crowd tried for noise records at Siemens arena. Strasbourg needed a triple but, instead, Smith threw up an airball and the visitors needed to foul. Stelmahers hit a free throw at 71-54. Nissim stepped to the line next, made both and then fouled Delininkaitis immediately. He missed his first free throw, and the second bounced up before going in. Strasbourg was left with one chance to tie the series, but Nissim's three-point try missed and L. Rytas kept alive the dream of being the ULEB Cup's first two-time champ.
Tuesday, March 06, 2007