Well, as they say in the home of Tau Ceramica: 'Gloria Vitoria!' To reach the Euroleague Finals is more than anyone could have asked of Tau when its season started, perhaps even when these playoffs started. But that's exactly what 9,500 rabid fans in Vitoria, Spain got on Saturday night as Tau relied on its incredible versatility to beat AEK 76-62 in Game 3 of their semifinal. This time Tau was led by its big men center Victor Alexander, power forward Fabricio Oberto and supersub Luis Scola who combined for 46 points and led a 39-26 rebounding advantage. It was Tau's seventh consecutive win in a remarkable Euroleague playoff run. They started all three series on the road against pillars of Greek basketball, and they not only won everywhere, but won the replay of Game 1 of this series after a disputed final basket had given AEK the victory. Although AEK has again protested that game with the Euroleague, Tau is considered the finalist as of the end of Game 3. The Euroleague Finals begin Tuesday, April 17, in Bologna, Italy against Virtus Kinder, who defeated Paf Bologna 3-0 in the other semifinal.
A star was born in Scola, the 21-year-old power forward, whose quick pivot moves the AEK big men just could not keep up with. Scola made the big offensive plays in the middle quarters and finished with 15 points off the bench to go with 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. One of those assists came on the first of a pair of three-point plays by Alexander in the decisive 8-0 run that boosted Tau's lead to 70-52 early in the fourth quarter. Alexander, who seemed to clear every rebound early, but encountered foul trouble, finished with 16 points and 8 rebounds. And as if those two efforts weren't enough, the third member of that troika, Oberto, did everything else necessary, finishing with 15 points and 9 rebounds.
But to mention only scorers is to ignore half the strength of Tau. Relentless defense, in particular by swingman Laurent Foirest on AEK sharpshooter Ibrahim Kutluay, who was held to 18 points because he was only allowed to receive the ball every so often. Foirest drew more charges (2) than he had baskets (1), and made 6 assists. The other key ingredient was Chris Corchiani, whose 15 minutes coincided with Tau inching into control. Indeed, both starting point guard Elmer Bennett and Alexander were on the bench as Tau put the game away. One of Bennett?s 6 assists, however, to Scola on a slipped screen, was one of the game's finest plays. It not capped a 6-0 run that gave Tau a 50-38 lead midway through the third quarter, but demonstrated again how resourceful Tau was on offense. Of Saulius Stombergas, the Game 1 replay hero for his 39 points, Tau needed only his normal 13-point output to finish off the series.
The first half had done justice to the best quality of this series: its competitiveness. AEK marked some territory early, with 17-year-old Nikos Zizis in the starting lineup. His mission was clear as he fouled Stombergas the first time the Tau forward touched the ball. Stombergas indeed did not score for a whole quarter, in fact, his first three-point attempt produced an airball. But neither did Kutluay get hot either, as both teams worked to establish an inside game. Mostly, that meant triple-pivot moves before bankshots by AEK center Andrew Betts (6 points) and fadeaways by Alexander for Tau. Niether team could get away from the other and the quarter ended 16-16 on another shot by Alexander, who also pulled 6 rebounds in the quarter.
At that pace, it took Tau several minutes, Stombergas's first basket and a defensive shutout to to get as much as a 24-18 lead midway through the quarter. That went up to 27-20 a couple of minutes later as Stombergas turned a reverse layup into a three-point play. But sooner still, Kutluay was nailing his first three-pointer and Martin Muursepp followed with a fastbreak dunk. Like that, it was a two-point game again, 29-27. Stombergas capped a 10-point quarter with one more basket, however, and Corchiani hit 3 of 4 free throws down the stretch to leave it at 34-27 Tau at the half.
The opposing forces trying to gain control after halftime were Betts, with three pretty baskets, and Stombergas, who rose up and nailed his first three-pointer. But here came another Tau defensive clampdown leading to a 7-1 run and Tau's first double-digit lead at 44-34. AEK's last real run finished with two Demos Dikoudis free throws that made it 44-38, but that?s when Bennett and Scola made two foul shots each and connected on that pretty layup. A three-pointer by Kutluay was answered with one by Corchiani and Tau finished the third quarter leading 54-44. The handwriting was on the wall. They were dancing in the aisles in Vitoria the whole fourth quarter.
Saturday, April 7, 2001