Lietuvos Rytas bested Unicaja 70-65
Lietuvos Rytas notched a very important 70-65 win Thursday night at Siemens Arena over Unicaja Malaga to improve to 2-2 in Group E of the Top 16. The result tied the Lithuanian champs with Caja Laboral for second place after the latter lost to group-leader Panathinaikos in Athens. Unicaja fell to 1-3 with only two games remaining in the Top 16 stage. Both will be must-win matches in order to challenge for a spot in the Quarterfinal Playoffs. Khalid El-Amin paced the winners with 18 points and Martynas Gecevicius scored 17 to go with 6 rebounds, while Kenan Bajramovic added 12 points. Joel Freeland recorded 19-points and 8 rebounds to lead the visitors, while Berni Rodriguez and Robert Archibald added 12 points apiece. Rytas will travel next week to play Panathinaikos in Athens, while Unicaja will face a tough challenge in their visit of Caja Laboral’s Fernando Buesa Arena.
The game was fast-paced, but defensive-minded in its opening quarter, with Unicaja trying to run on an alert Rytas defense that showcased its athletic ability. The first three minutes of play saw just a pair of buckets evenly split by both teams. It was only when Freeland opened things up with a triple that the offenses got going, with dynamic playmaker El-Amin leading the charge for the home side with a layup and a triple that tied the game at 9-9. Crisp ball movement and cutting at both ends made for an entertaining game throughout the quarter with plenty of good looks, but while Unicaja spread the ball in its half-court sets, El-Amin was still the main offensive catalyst for the Lithuanian champs, scoring 9 of his team’s first 13 points. Berni Rodriguez finally got on the board with a free throw for Unicaja and Gecevius did the same for Rytas, but the quarter ended pretty much the way it started: with some lock-down defense that allowed just one field goal in the final two minutes and a 17-17 standstill after one.
A big-time block by Cemal Nalga hinted at a prolonged defensive battle and seemed to spark the home side, who pulled ahead on a DJ Strawberry triple before Rodriguez answered with another long-range shot that kept the visitors on top, 22-24. With the game slowing down to a halfcourt affair, Unicaja went to the pick-and-roll in an effort to get its big men involved, while Rytas got plenty of good perimeter looks, but was just not able to convert. Gecevicius finally nailed a triple that seemed to wet his scoring appetite and highlight a shooting duel with Rodriguez, who tied it at 31-31, also from beyond the arc. A Newley assist provided Bajramovic with a dunk opportunity and the forward did not pass it up, rattling the rim with a one-hander that preceded another deep ball from Gecevicius that scored it 38-33, tying the game’s maximum difference to that point and urging visiting head coach Chus Mateo to call timeout. Unicaja labored to get good looks but took long possessions to manufacture them, often settling for contested jumpers with the shot clock winding down. Again, the period ended with a defensive tone and a tight score, 39-35, that had Gecevicius surpassing El-Amin as the game´s leading scorer, with 12 points.
The home point guard started the second half aggressively with a gorgeous right-handed shot over Simanovic, and Rytas was able to quickly establish the biggest lead of the game at 44-37 after a Bajramovic back-to-the-basket move. As Unicaja again struggled to get in a rhythm offensively, Mateos’s crew tried to push the ball, but it was El-Amin who burned them on the fast break with an accurate assist for a streaking Newley, who converted the three-point-play to establish the lead at 10 points. The Spanish side then went to Freeland and Archibald inside in hopes of establishing a post presence, but young center Jonas Valenciunas stood his ground on the defensive end and kept active on the boards. The hosts always seemed to be a step quicker when attacking, executing with constant motion, but Archibald was able to make it a double-digit difference again from the line and, once the visiting defense adjusted some and sealed the glass, Rodriguez narrowed the margin to 51-46 on a well-timed feed by Roderick Blakney. A buzzer beating alley-oop tap-in by Freeland allowed Unicaja to keep that difference, entering the fourth quarter at 53-48.
Rytas wasted no time hitting first in the final period with a Gecevicius triple, but Freeland showed his range by answering right back with a long two-pointer. The charge kept coming by the visitors, as Rodriguez capitalized on Rytas’s soft defense to make it a one-possession game with a triple, and Archibald kept it that way, 58-55, after a nice left-handed scoop by Milko Bjelica. But just as a change of momentum seemed to creep up on the hosts, Rytas punched back with a Bjelica bank shot and a hustle play that started with a Newley steal, continued with an El-Amin assist and finished with a Bajramovic fast-break layup that made it 64-56 with just five minutes left, forcing Mateo to call timeout. But the break did little to stop the hosts’ attack, as El-Amin shook loose for a layup and Newley punctuated the 8-0 run with a powerful dunk. Unicaja clawed back with a Freeland face-up jumper at the 1:47 mark that made it a two-possession game at 68-62, but Terrell McIntyre’s first field goal of the game, a corner three that tightened the score to 68-65 with 7 second to go, was ultimately not enough. El-Amin calmly hit both ensuing free throws and Uros Tripkovic missed a late triple to give Rytas their second victory of the Top 16.
Thursday, February 17, 2011