A new favorite to make the Final Four emerged out of Group D on Wednesday as Efes Pilsen rejected a furious comeback attempt by CSKA Moscow to win their battle for first place, 71-69. Some 12,000 lucky fans in Istanbul saw Efes accomplish something no other team before it this season has been able to do: move ahead of CSKA Moscow in the standings. Efes is now 3-0 in Group D and CSKA 2-1 with 3 games remaining in the Top 16. A three-pointer with 21 seconds left by Alper Yilmaz cemented a victory that Efes had led by 15 points shortly after halftime. CSKA roared back and was able to tie twice with less than 5 minutes to play, but Efes never let their visitors go ahead. Marcus Brown, whose three-pointer broke the last tie, led the winners with 23 points, while Antonio Granger lifted Efes again and again with 22. For CSKA, Victor Alexander had 22 points and Darius Songaila 13, but the Russian champs could not capitalize completely on their 33-42 rebounding advantage.
As is his habit, Songaila started the game strong, with a three-pointer and a shorter jump shot that put CSKA up 0-5 in 2 minutes. Antonio Granger got a basket and a free throw to start Efes scoring, but soon Alexander and Holden made their first baskets for a 3-10 CSKA lead. Lucky for Efes, it had Granger. He now raised up for one three-pointer, then another, to put his and his team's point total at 9. Problem was, CSKA continued scoring easily against one of the Euroleague's top defenses, with Alexander adding 2 more inside shots for a 9-14 lead. Brown now got to the line for Efes after drawing Zakhar Pashutin's third foul, then drew Holden's first, too. He made all 4 free throws. When Kambala got on board with his first points, from the foul line also, Efes was within 15-16. Then Brown punctuated a 15-5 comeback run with a triple for an 18-15 Efes lead, forcing a CSKA timeout. It didn't help. After the timeout, Efes got a couple other scorers going. Kaya Peker hit a layup and Kerem Tunceri blasted a triple from downtown to make it 23-16. When Alexander hit his fourth shot, CSKA seemed to break the spell, but before the quarter could end, Tunceri was launching again from the arc. When it landed, Efes had a 26-18 lead that had not looked at all likely just a few minutes earlier.
CSKA got back in the game with defense, holding Efes to a single basket in the first 4 minutes of the second quarter while forging a 2-8 run to within 26-28. CSKA's points came from a new source, too, young forward Sergei Monya, who put in a jumper and a three-pointer during the run. Except for 3 more points by Holden, the benches were in full control now. Jurica Golemac, back in action after an injury, scored his second basket for Efes and Alper Yilmaz a three-point play. But those were mitigated by a three-pointer from Nikos Hatzivrettas for CSKA, after which the Efes lead stood at 33-29. Songaila rejoined the scoring battle with another burts of 5 points himself, bringing CSKA to within 35-34 in the final two minutes. After Brown's layup gave Efes some breathing space, Granger finished as strong as he had started, taking a pair of offensive rebounds in the final minute and scoring the final basket inside to send the hosts to the locker room with a 39-34 advantage. Granger was up to 11 points for Efes by that time, while Songaila led all scorers with 12.
And Granger was not finished yet. He came out and opened the second half with a triple from deep to boost the Efes lead to 42-34. Things looked worse still for CSKA as Songalia was called for consecutive fouls on Peker and had to go to the bench in the 22nd minute. Brown's fastbreak layup pushed the lead into double-digits at 45-34. The Efes surge was all the more remarkable because Kambala had hardly been involved in the scoring so far. Now, he joined the cause with a basket and two free throws that made it 49-34. Four minutes into the quarter, Efes had a 10-0 run and control of the scoreboard. Victor Khryapa finally ended CSKA's slide with a pair of free throws and Alexander added a free throw to lower the deficit to 49-37. Alexander, intent on saving CSKA, now showed his range with a triple for 49-40. Brown answered with a three-point play on a layup and foul by Khryapa, but Theodoros Papaloukas matched it for CSKA with a shot from the arc. A Papaloukas free throw then 2 by Alexander got the deficit down to single digits, 54-46, for CSKA. Granger reappeared with a timely fastbreak dunk, but Alexander was able to get another basket down in the final minute, making the Efes lead 56-48 after 30 minutes.
Big man Alexander Bashminov chose the start of the final quarter to land his first shot, and the CSKA comeback was underway. The visitors were now drawing the line defensively, holding Efes without a point for 3 minutes as Bashminov added another 2 points to make it 56-52. Granger emerged again to save Efes with a triple for 59-52, but it was only a respite. Papaloukas added a pair of free throws for CSKA, then Bashminov stole a rebound from Kambala and drew the Efes center's fourth foul on the putback. He hit the free throw to reduce the difference to 59-57, and then Alexander completed the resurgence with a game-tying basket for 59-59 with under 4 minutes to play. Several tense possessions passed without a point, but then Brown and Alexander exchanged baskets to make it 61-61. Just under the two-minute mark, Brown raised up drilled the three-pointer that brought the fans at Abdi Ipekci arena jumping toward the roof as Efes led 64-61. Songaila got a point back at the line, but Granger upped the lead to 66-62. This fight was going down to the last punch, however, as Hatzivrettas answered from downtown to pull CSKA within 66-65. In the final minute, after an Efes timeout, Brown passed to Yilmaz on the arc for the game-breaking three-pointer that made it 69-65 with 21 seconds left. CSKA spent a timeout, too, after which Alexander was fouled and hit both free throws with 10 seconds left. Brown was fouled immediately and hit both of his foul shots for a 71-67 Efes lead. With 2 seconds left, Hatzivrettas got to the line on a foul by Yilmaz and made 2 of 3 attempts, but Efes inbounded without problem and wrapped up the lead in Group D.
Wednesday, March 19, 2003