Cibona VIP got its first Top 16 victory in Group D on Thursday night by downing Unicaja Malaga 88-81 at home in Zagreb. The first half was all Cibona as the home team took leads as large as 22 points. But in the third quarter, Unicaja changed its attitude and came back to within a single basket. In the final minutes, however, Niksa Prkacin and newcomer Darren McLinton sealed the deal for the hosts. Cibona is now 1-2 and third in the group standings, while Unicaja drops to 0-3 and practically eliminated from the race for the Final Four. For Cibona, Slaven Rimac led the way with 20 points, Prkacin added 18 and Haris Mujezinovic bagged 16. McLinton, a point guard who was tried out and signed earlier in the week, contributed 13 points, including 2 crucial triples in the last quarter. For Unicaja, Louis Bullock shined with 20 points, including 4 of 10 threes, while Stephane Risacher added 14 and Roger Esteller tallied 13.
It took the game a few plays to warm up, but soon Chuck Kornegay took a couple offensive rebounds and dunked for Unicaja to tie 2-2. Just as soon, however, Cibona started to emerge as a superior team on court, forging fast plays on offense and never letting Unicaja breathe at the other end. Prkacin was one of the pillars for Cibona in the offensive end, as his basket made it 13-6, before Davor Kus joined the party to double Unicaja's score, 19-8. The hosts changed to a zone defense, and Unicaja tried shooting from downtown, but 1 of 8 triples at the end of the first quarter said it all. Esteller was the only player trying to pull his team as he scored 2 free throws for 19-10, but again, the hosts replied with a 4-0 run for the first double-digit lead of the game, 23-10. Bullock gave a hint of his usual performances with a providential three-pointer, but Mujezinovic's penetration in the last seconds set a 25-13 score at the end of the period.
In the second quarter, things went more radical. Cibona found even easier ways to Unicaja's basket, while the guests ran out of ideas against Cibona's lock-downt defense. Mujezinovic started the period with a three-point play, 28-13. Unicaja tried to move the ball but it was rather useless, at the same time as Frederic Weis committed his third foul. Youngster Fran Vazquez became Unicaja coach Boza Maljkovic's secret weapon in the lane, but Prkacin and Rimac scored like crazy to pull their team away, 38-21. Unicaja was unable to find a rhythm in the game, and the scarce isolated plays that were successful seemed totally outdone by Cibona's easy shots. McLinton hit his debut basket, a jumper, for a miximum lead of 21 points, 42-21. Rimac scored his 14th point with two free throws for 44-24. Esteller was still the most aggressive player for the guests, who managed to leave the deficit under 20 points at the break, thanks to Berni Rodriguez's triple on the buzzer, 48-29.
The third quarter was a complete change for both teams. Unicaja became more aggressive, while Cibona was overwhelmed, especially by Bullock and Stephane Risacher. Prkacin started the period with a reverse basket, but soon, Unicaja was off on a 0-7 run sealed by Risacher's dunk for 53-39. A fastbreak by Zoran Planinic maintained Cibona ahead but 4 straight point by Bullock after a steal pulled Unicaja within 57-43. Ademola Okulaja dominated the defensive boards, allowing the guests to run the fastbreak, and now it was Cibona triying to survive on isolated plays. Another triple by Bullock for 57-50 started to worry the home fans, but Cibona reacted with a 5-0 run. Bullock and Risacher again combined on 5 points to end the third quarter with Cibona still leading, 63-58, but Unicaja knocking at the door.
The last quarter was balanced again, as Cibona was back to its earlier level, led by Prkacin. For Unicaja, Weis emerged from under the rim to hit some vital points for his team, taking advantage of his centimeters. Carlos Cabezas nailed a triple to pull Unicaja within 2 points, 65-63, but among Rimac, Prkacin and Marijan Mance, Cibona stayed ahead 71-67. Mujezinovic was fouled out with 5 minutes to go, but then McLinton showed why he was signed, sinking 2 straight triples that made it 77-69 and spelled the end of Unicaja's comeback. Mous Sonko and Bullock shot the guests as close as 79-74 in the final minute, but McLinton assisted Andrej Stimac to make it 81-74 with 45 seconds to go. From there, Cibona took care of business at the free throw line and walked off with a victory in the first of its three Top 16 home games.
Thursday, March 20, 2003