In a game that had the pressure of a final but the theatrics of an all-star shootout, Unicaja Malaga took a giant step toward the Top 16 with a commanding 76-68 home win against dangerous Maccabi Tel Aviv in Group B on Thursday. One three-point barrage in the first half put Unicaja in charge, and another let it roar away from Maccabi late in the third quarter. The result lifted Unicaja to sole possession of fourth place at 6-5 and dropped Maccabi to sixth, at 4-7. The hero for the winners was Stephane Risacher, who finished with 29 points, including 6 of 8 three-pointers. He scored 21 points of those points in the first 14 minutes of the game. Milan Gurovic backed him with 4 three-pointers among 15 points and Carlos Cabezas his 2 more from long-distance to send Unicaja on its way to victory in the second half. Unicaja made 14 of 25 three-pointers overall. Maccabi got 17 points from Nikola Vujcic, 14 from Quincy Lewis and 11 from Beno Udrih, but could not keep up with Unicaja's firepower late in the game.
Ademola Okulaja started strong with 4 points for Unicaja and a block underneath against Vujcic, but soon Maccabi's center got his revenge with the game's first three-pointer for a 4-7 Maccabi lead. Risacher was already very active, however, and now his shots started falling in bunches, initially with a pair of driving layups. Then the lefthanded Frenchman hit his own three-pointer, the first of several, from the corner. Goree was answering for Maccabi at that point, getting loose for a pair of backdoor layups, and Yoav Saffar buried a three. So when Tal Burstein stole the ball and fed Udrih a fastbreak leayup, plus foul shot, the visitors were ahead 11-17 after 7 minutes. But they couldn't stop Risacher. He raised up for another three, Saffar answered, and Risacher came down for his third three-pointer. He was up to 13 points himself, but Unicaja still trailed 17-20. The first major lineup changes saw Quincy Lewis left alone for a triple and a 17-23 Maccabi lead. Risacher got to the line for his 14th and 15th points before the quarter could end 19-23.
The break between quarters did nothing to cool Risacher. He opened the second with his fourth bomb from the perimeter. Within a couple minutes, after Lewis hit his second down-towner for Maccabi, Risacher was popping off another screen and draining his fifth, putting him at 21 points and drawing Unicaja within 27-30. It was time for his teammates to take over, but they liked his three-point trend. Bullock rose from behind the arc and hit the game-tying three, then Gorovic came down on the next possession and took the lead with his own from the corner. For awhile it seemed there would be no scoring from closer than 6.25 meters. After a silent minute, Goree knocked down a triple to regain the lead for Maccabi at 33-34, but Bullock answered in kind on the next play, putting Unicaja back up, 36-34. The action cooled to timeouts, free throws and two-pointers until halftime, when a short little hook by Vujcic ended a thrilling half of basketball with Unicaja clinging to a 39-38 lead.
Nervous misses and turnovers prevailed for almost 3 minutes after halftime during which only 2 free throws by Bullock went up on the scoreboard. But Vujcic beat the shot-clock to sink a shot and it broke the ice. Risacher drove for 2 points and Lewis answered with a turnaround on the baseline to pull Maccabi within 43-42. The visitors left Milan Gurovic alone, however, for consecutive three-pointers from the wing. In between, Vujcic had matched one on a dunk and free throw that drew Risacher's third foul. But at the other end, Lewis drew his fourth trying to stop the next shot by Gurovic, who made 1 free throw for a 50-45 Unicaja lead. Saffar then stepped up and hit his third triple for Maccabi, and the three-point war was on again. Risacher had to try his hand, of course, and his shot from deep made it 55-49. Then Carlos Cabezas matched him and Chuck Kornegay added a free throw for the game's first double-digit lead, 59-49. A Vujcic three-pointer helped Maccabi back within 7 points, 59-52, but the quarter ended with Cabezas getting loose for a layup. Unicaja had a 61-52 after 30 minutes.
The fourth quarter was decided rather quickly. Cabezas continued to shine with another three-pointer, after two free throws by Beno Udrih of Maccabi, that put Unicaja up 61-54. Lewis climbed off Maccabi's bench for a basket to make it 61-56, and then, after a couple turnovers by each team, came perhaps the key play. Maccabi's defense forced a wild Unicaja shot and the rebound was up for grabs. Out of nowhere came Adam Wojcik to dunk it with one hand while getting fouled. His free throw made the lead 11 points again, 67-56, with 6 minutes left. Gurovic soon added another triple and then Chuck Kornegay repeated the offensive rebound dunk of Wojcik for a 72-60 Unicaja advantage with 3 minutes left. Maccabi searched the perimeter for three-pointers, but none were to come, and in the searching, the time dwindled away. Unicaja was a giant step closer to the Top 16, and Maccabi might make it yet, but in Malaga on Thursday, there was no doubting who had the upper hand.
Thursday, January 16, 2003