Benetton Treviso boosted its chances of returning to the Final Four by knocking Tau Ceramica out of the Group F race with a 75-84 road win in Vitoria on Wednesday. A 10-21 run right after halftime put Tau's back against the wall and broke the game open for Benetton, which resisted a late comeback attempt from the hosts. The win kept Benetton's record perfect at 4-0, at least one victory ahead of the only team that can still catch it, Maccabi Tel Aviv, who plays Thursday. Tau dropped to 1-3 and says goodbye to its Final Four chances. For the winners, Massimo Bulleri led the way with 16 points. Denis Marconato added 14, Marcelo Nicola tallied 12, and Trajan Langdon and Tyus Edney nailed 11 apiece. For Tau, Andres Nocioni was the best scorer with 14 points, Laurent Foirest added 12, Luis Scola 11 and Thierry Gadou 10.
Amid the nervousness of the early minutes, two players took over and calmed their teams for the rigorous battle that was to come. Benetton got its early boost from a former Tau player, Jorge Garbajosa, who wowed his old crowd with 7 points as the visitors took a 10-11 lead. Garbajosa had a three-pointer already, but Tau shooter Foirest was stealing the show from the arc. Foirest had already hit two, and now he raised up for a third swish from downtown to give Tau a 13-11 lead. Back and forth was to be the trend. Manuchar Markoishvili, Langdon and Massimo Bulleri all hit buckets as Benetton retook the scoreboard at 15-17. Nocioni kept Tau from slipping with a pair of nifty backdoor baskets, but when Nicola calmly downed his own triple, Benetton was on its way to finishing the opening quarter with an 18-21 lead.
Tau went about finding new sources for points in the second quarter as it retook a lead at 26-25 on a three-point inbounds play by Gadou. Scola now scored twice on spin moves inside as the lead hit 30-27, but Edney raced for an uncontested layup and then threw an alley-oop pass to Marconato as Benetton seized the advantage, 30-31. The lead changed hands almost with each possession now as the teams raced up and down looking for new and inventive scoring opportunities. Rashard Griffith and Sergi Vidal put Tau ahead with baskets, but in between that, Bulleri and Langdon did so for the visitors. Not until Scola's three-point reverse under the basket put Tau up 40-35 was a clear advantage evident. But even then, Bulleri went about finding holes in the Tau defense for 2 more baskets before the half could end, by which time the Tau lead was cut to 42-40.
Things changed in the third quarter as Benetton stepped back on court with more aggressivity and regained the lead. Despite a new three-pointer by Foirest, Tau got stuck at 49 points for several minutes as Benetton increased its lead slowly but steadily. It was 49-53 when Nicola added 4 points onto Benetton's column with a pair of inside baskets. Tau was reeling, and on top of everything, point guard Elmer Bennett suffered a finger injury on his shooting hand in minute 25, right when Riccardo Pittis drove to increase the lead to 49-61. Nocioni broke the spell from the three-point line for Tau after Scola's coast-to-coast fastbreak and assist. In fact, Nocioni became once again the main power for Tau both on offense and defense, as with another steal and fastbreak he pulled his team within 54-63. But Benetton still controlled the tempo, and in the last breath of the period, Bulleri hit a long-range jumper that left the guests ahead 60-69 to face the decisive period.
In the last quarter, Benetton had some problems as Tau fought back with the knowledge that its Final Four options could stand only with a victory. Jose Manuel Calderon scored to cut the deficit to 64-71 as tension on the floor thickened, with both teams playing aggressive defense relying on their heart as much as their heads. Vidal kept Tau close, but Pittis showed why he is a master by hitting some key baskets, including a jump hook that made it 66-77. The battle between Gadou and Garbajosa was on fire, as the former beat the later for a layup. Bulleri replied from downtown, but Leo Palladino did the same thing on the following play for Tau. It was now 71-80. An unsportsmanslike foul called on Langdon allowed Calderon to score 2 free throws for 73-80, but Gadou missed the following shot. With little more than 3 minutes to go Benetton was tight defense and ball control offense, but missed a couple of free throws that allowed Tau to pull within 74-80. But that was as close as the hosts would get. Ruben Wolkowyski missed a crucial triple with less than 2 minutes to go, and on the following play, a trip to the foul line allowed Nicola to break the game open at 74-82.
Wednesday, March 26, 2003