Ulker Istanbul proved that not even a lack of motivation can stop its winning ways as it finished the regular season on Thursday with an 86-90 victory on the road against Partizan Mobtel in Group C. Ulker's drive for the best second-place record overall, which would have come with privilege of heading a Top 16 group, was shortcut 24 hours earlier when Barcelona won in Group A and finished 11-3. Ulker had to settle for 10-4, but had the added prize of seeing its main man in the middle, Joseph Blair, outlast Partizan's Milos Vujanic for the regular season MVP award. Barring a record night later Thursday by either of two other challengers, Blair will haul away the award after finishing the game with 9 points and 9 rebounds en route to an individual index rating of 24. He finished with an average index rating of 25.57 per night over the entire 14-game regular season. With his home fans cheering him one, Vujanic almost stole the MVP lead with his 28 points, including 5 of 9 three-pointers, and an index rating of 33. However, his season-long average rating settled fractions short of Blair at 25.00 exactly. Theirs was the game within the game, but the Ulker victory counted several big scoring contributors. Virginius Praskevicius led the winners with 18 points. Melvin Booker added 16 and Harun Erdenay 13, including 4 of 6 three-pointers. Ulker made 11 of 18 (61.1%) overall from downtown and 19 of 32 two-pointers (59.3%). All but one of Partizan's three-pointers were made by Vujanic. Nenad Krstic added 16 points, Frederick House and Djuro Ostojic 11, and Dusan Kecman 10 for Partizan, which finished the season 4-10 and last in Group C. After their team joined the Euroleague at the last minute in September, the Belgrade fans will have to be content with having seen Vujanic become scoring champ with 25.7 points per game, almost 6 points more on average than any other player on the continent.
Perhaps due to no real chance of moving up or down in the standings for either team, the game started slow, but Erdenay did not mean to continue on that way. He hit his first triple for Ulker's first lead, 2-5, then 2 more from the downtown as the score arrived at 14-16. The Ulker captain would get his fourth three-pointer before the quarter ended, but neither Blair of Vujanic were in a scoring mood as of yet. They both went through the quarter with zero points each. Krstic and Ostojic accounted for 14 of Partizan's points in the paint by then, but Ulker was still able to hold on by a point, 22-23, at the end of 10 minutes.
The second period started with Ostojic blocking Blair's shot and Vujanic booking his first points from downtown for a 30-25 Partizan lead. Soon a 6-0 mini-run had Partizan ahead by 7 points, 36-29, a margin the hosts would nurse until the last minute of the second period. But with 24 seconds until the break Blair scored his first points and the first half ended with Partizan's lead cut down to 42-41.
The third quarter started like the second, this time with Krstic blocking Blair, but then missing the fastbreak layup at the other end of the court. Vujanic hit a three-pointer but Praskevicius struck back in the last second of an Ulker attack. Vujanic's third triple in the quarter gave Partizan a 50-49. A few minutes later he layed up in front of Blair to ignite an 11-2 Partizan to its biggest lead yet, 61-53. In the third period Partizan scored 23 points, 18 of them by Vujanic, but Praskevicius and Booker used the final minutes to again chop into the deficit. By the time 30 minutes were up, the scoreboard showed the two teams almost as close as when they started, 65-63.
Miljan Goljovic was the turnaround man for Ulker in the begining of the last period. He scored all 8 of his points for the night consecutively and when he was done, Ulker led by 67-71. The Turkish guests maintained that three-point advantage until the next-to-last minute of the game when Vujanic made another bomb for 82-82. The last minute was the classical free throw shooting contest, in which Praskevicius and Booker were more concentrated than House and Vujanic. The last points were made 8 seconds from the finish by Blair. Partizan tried to find a chance for overtime, but the more experienced team finally won this game, too, and the fans in Belgrade would have to wait for another season.
Thursday, February 13, 2003