Maccabi bounced back from a rare home loss by turning back the late run of Zalgiris to win their Group B showdown 92-83 on Thursday in Tel Aviv. A 21-point first half by Maceo Baston gave Maccabi big leads it guarded the rest of the way to a 9-3 record and sole possession of second place. The victory set up a showdown next week in Moscow against first-place CSKA. Zalgiris dropped to 5-7 and a complicated route to the Top 16 as anything other than the best sixth-place team in the whole competition. Baston led the winners with 23 points in 28 minutes, while his frontcourt partner, Nikola Vujcic, added 22. Swingman Anthony Parker was big as well, with a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double. All of it was needed to stop a Zalgiris comeback from 21 down after three quarters to 5 points behind near the end. Ed Cota led Zalgiris with 20 points, while Tanoka Beard had 19. Arvydas Sabonis had another double-double, 12 points and 10 rebounds, while Ainars Bagatskis put up another 11 points.
Even though Sabonis got the scoring started with a jump-hook, its lightning-quick attack blasted Maccabi to a 9-2 start in the opening minutes. Before anyone realized it, however, Baston dunked an alley-oop pass from Parker and Maccabi kept on scoring in transition. Parker fed Jasikevicius twice before pulling up for a foul line jumper of his own. In fact, Maccabi didn't run a set play at all in the first 3 minutes. But oncee Ed Cota and Tanoka Beard starting working together, Zalgiris managed to slow the pace and creep back into the game. Finally, a three-pointer from Ainars Bagatkis tied it at 11-11, to the delight of the small pocket of Lithuanian fans at Nokia Arena. Maccabi turned again to Baston, however, and he showed no fear Sabonis. On the next play, his baseline dunk set the tone for the coming minutes. He scored twice more during a 10-0 run as Maccabi ran away. Danius Salenga came of the bench to break the drought for Zalgiris, and Cota continued with his fine penetration moves, but another Baston alley-oop ignited the fans and gave him 12 points of Maccabi's 27-17 lead after 10 minutes.
Baston scored again inside on the first play of the second period as Maccabi's momentum continued. Parker nailed a wide-open three and Derrick Sharp came off the bench to feed Baston as the lead grew to 36-20. On the next play, the tired Baston fouled Sabonis inside, allowing the legendary big man his first points since the opening play. Deon Thomas replaced Baston to a standing ovation from the sell-out crowd. But Thomas picked up where Baston left off, scoring 4 quick points as the advantage swelled to 19. Sabonis was static on offense, and had trouble keeping up with Maccabi's quicker frontline throughout the half. Only when Beard came in for Sabonis, and Giedrius Gustas started hitting from outside, did the Zalgiris offense start to score. By then, however, Baston was back, and his dunk of a no-look Jasikevicius fastbreak pass made it 54-34. Cota and Beard kept playing hard, with the point guard flipping the ball behind him to Beard for a layup and foul as Zalgiris closed the gap to 56-44 at the break.
Zalgiris coach Antanas Sireika decided to keep Sabonis on the bench to start the second half, while giving young Paulius Jankunas his first action of the night. Though Maccabi seemed to have lost its edge, the visitors remained cold on offense, and by the time Sabonis came in for Beard midway through the quarter, Tel Aviv led 67-50. A Tal Burstein jumper followed by a steal and solo layup allowed the hosts to increase their advantage to 21. Maccabi turned the game over to reserve point guard Yotam Halperin, who popped a late three-pointer as Maccabi stayed up 79-58 at the end of 30 minutes.
Sabonis and Zalgiris showed signs of a comeback as the big man scored 5 straight points during a 10-0 run to start the final period. But after 4 minutes of play, Sabonis took a breather, and Vujcic ended the Maccabi slide with a baseline jumper over Beard. Bagatskis, unfazed by the Tel Aviv crowd, promptly sunk 2 free throws and a triple, while Beard converted 2 foul shots to suddenly cut the deficit to 6 points, 81-75. Vujcic scored on a follow-up after Baston's shot was rejected, and then Baston slammed home Vujcic's miss on the next play to revive the fans and Maccabi's confidence. With 2 minutes remaining, Sabonis drew the fifth foul from Baston, and converted both shots to keep the deficit in single digits. After a Burstein miss, Thomas also fouled out and put Beard on the line, as Maccabi coach Pini Gershon turned to his captain, Gur Shelef, for the first time all evening. Beard made both free throws to trim the score to 85-79, and Sabonis in turn was fouled by Shelef just seconds later, making just one. But Maccabi was ready for the Lithuanian trap, and some swift passing sent Vujcic downcourt for an uncontested dunk to make it 88-80 with 45 ticks on the clock. Derrick Sharp was next to foul out, sending Cota to the line, but he made only 1 fould shot and Maccabi started to take time off the clock, until Zalgiris began fouling. Shelef made 2 and Mindaugas Timinskas missed a three as it became clear that Zalgiris's comeback was too little too late.
Thursday, February 5, 2004