The first big blow of the Top 16 landed in Siena on Thursday when Montepaschi, the last team to qualify, defeated Ulker of Istanbul 84-79 after a hard battle everywhere on the court. Under the rims, where Siena had to deal with regular season MVP Joseph Blair, the man who had that distinction this time a year ago, Mirsad Turkcan, put in an outstanding game. Turkcan led the winners with a double-double of 23 points and 12 rebounds. He got huge support from Alphonso Ford with 18 points, many in the pivotal third period, and Michalis Kakiouzis, whose 8 points included 2 decisive triples in the last quarter. For the visitors Harun Erdenay showed his brave heart once again, drilling 22 points with 5 triples. Blair added a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds. Virginius Praskevicius hit 3 bombs in the first quarter and finished with 13 points for the visitors, while Tutku Acik added 11 more. Montepaschi goes 1-0 to join Panathinaikos in the Group E lead while Ulker starts 0-1.
There was no time to warm up at the start of the match. Ulker went at its high pace from the start. The ball ricocheted like a pinball over the court. Montepaschi coach Ergin Ataman chose to start Aaron Mitchell as point guard against Melvin Booker. Virginius Praskevicius came up big right away for the Turks, with 2 three-pointers. His were not the only ones, however, because Mindaugas Zukauskas also drilled 2 bombs in the earlier minutes. Erdenay added 7 points as the scoreboard remained even. Siena tried a full-court press, but Ulker was full of excellent ballhandlers. After 8 minutes, Ulker had a 14-15 lead. Turkcan had a great offensive touch going already, but struggled to chase down Praskevicius, who drilled another time from downtown. Blair put his signature on the quarter with a tap-in at the end as Ulker took a 19-23 advantage after 10 minutes.
Ulker had a fine start to the second quarter, too, surging ahead 23-29 on a triple by Booker. The key was Ulker's pick-and-roll, and Blair's impact under the rims, while his teammates positioned themselves dangerously on the arc. While Turkcan was climbing quickly to 12 points and trying to fire up the Siena crowd, Erdenay freezed them with his 15th point after another pair of triples. Ulker kept running away to 30-39 and Montepaschi only reacted when Dusan Vukcevic took the floor and hit 2 bombs without a miss, getting his team back within 3 points at 36-39. Ford would soon tie it, 42-42 running a fastbreak after a steal, but Tuktu Acik hit a three to retake the lead for Ulker. In a match with two soft defenses, Vukcevic became a factor, sticking to Booker like a glove. Ulker showed great patience moving the ball against Montepaschi's defensive rotation for open shots to preserve a 47-51 lead at the half. By then, the Turks had made 82% of their three-pointers and 62% inside the arc. Erdenay's 15 led his team while Turkcan had 18 already for Siena.
The third period started with the same barrage of baskets as in the first 20 minutes. Defense was not in the dictionary yet this night. Both teams were in a sort of offensive trance, very spectacular, but neither decisive enough to take charge. The bad news for Ulker was that Praskevicius missed his first triple of the game while Booker committed his fourth foul and went to the bench. Ford went into one-on-one mode and became suddenly unstoppable, with 7 points that would tie it for Montepaschi at 58-58. The battle was clearly joined now. The court resounded with physical contact and defensive effort. Everyone could breathe the steamy Top 16 air. Montepaschi closed the period with Ford having scored 11 points in 10 minutes and a 64-62 lead on the board.
In the final quarter, Montepaschi tried an early escape courtesy of newcomer Kakiouzis. He drilled 5 straight points while playing power forward against Praskevicius. Booker returned to the court, but Montepaschi ran away to a double-digit advantage, 74-64, thanks Turkcan's growing totals. With only 5 minutes to go, Ulker had a heavy 10-point deficit to make up, but the talent to try, too. Montepaschi suffered under the boards with the light duo Turkcan-Kakiouzis. Erdenay missed an easy fast break, while in the opposite side Vrbica Stefanov sank the decisive triple, at the end of a possession, that made it 79-67 with 3 minutes left. Blair hit a couple free throws, but Kakiouzis burnt the net with another three. When Erdenay answered with the same coin, however, the lead was still high at 82-72 and only 1 minute remained. Playing for a possible point difference at the end of the round, Ulker decreased the gap to the final 84-79.
Thursday, February 27, 2003