Maccabi Elite wrapped up first place in Group F and with it home-court advantage in the Quarterfinal Playoffs when it beat Zalgiris Kaunas 80-66 before a sold-out crowd at Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv. The Israeli champs finish the Top 16 with a 4-2 record, the same as second place Olympiacos, but Maccabi wins the group on a tiebreaker. Maccabi will face AXA FC Barcelona in the best-of-three playoffs for the right to advance to the Final Four in Madrid. Zalgiris hung close for the first period, but a 10-0 run that bridged the first and second quarters gave Maccabi the lead for good. Zalgiris continued to play hard, trailed only 42-35 at halftime and cut the gap to 4 early in the third period, but a 12-0 run punctuated by Terence Morris’s defense made it 56-40 and the hosts never looked back. Yotam Halperin paced Maccabi with 17 points and 8 assists, Nikola Vujcic added 12 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists, Morris had 11 points, 7 boards and 6 blocked shots – 1 less than the single-game Top 16 record – and Derrick Sharp hit three three-pointers on his way to 11 points. Marcus Brown led Zalgiris with 16 points, Jonas Maciulis added 13, Paulius Jankunas and Marko Popovic had 11 points apiece and DeJuan Collins scored 7 points and 6 assists.
Maccabi took control early as four different players scored on the first four possessions to take an 8-2 lead. A Brown triple followed by a goal-tending call on Morris trying to block a Jankunas shot brought Zalgiris within 1. Maccabi continued to score with ease, but Zalgiris's dominance on the offensive glass allowed the visitors to tie the game at 12-12 on a Collins free throw midway through the period. A Maccabi turnover led to a Collins jumper that gave Zalgiris its first lead. The visitors stretched the lead to 15-18 on a Jankunas second-chance basket, but the scoring quickly cooled off as both teams go a little sloppy. Omri Casspi and Damir Markota traded baskets and leads before an Esteban Batista bucket followed by Halperin’s halfcourt buzzer-beater gave the hosts a 24-20 lead after 10 minutes.
A Batista basket inside followed by a Morris triple extended the Maccabi's run to 10-0 and caused Zalgiris head coach Rimantas Grigas to call timeout as his team had gone scoreless for nearly four minutes. Popovic cut through the Maccabi defense for Zalgiris's first points of the period and despite a Maciulis three-pointer, Maccabi continued to score and Morris’s basket-plus-foul gave the hosts a double-digit lead. Maciulis beat the 24-second clock with a long three and then Brown dunked in transition, but Maccabi still led by 8. With 2:13 remaining before the half, Eurelijus Zukauskas limped off the floor with an apparent knee injury in what could be his final Euroleague appearance. A Jankuns triple capped a 0-10 Zalgiris charge that cut the gap to 38-35, but Halperin had the last word with a three that made it 42-35 at halftime.
Vujcic started the second half with a jump hook over Mamadou N'Diaye, but some missed easy shots on both ends limited the scoring. A Brown three-pointer brought Zalgiris within 44-40. Vujcic answered on the offensive glass and Haperin scored on the break as Maccabi regained control. Batista's spin move increased the hosts' lead to 11 and then Morris stood tall on the defensive end with a convincing block of a N'Diaye attempt and a rebound in traffic. The Halperin connected on his third three of the night to make it 54-40. A Casspi slam capped a 12-0 run that put Maccabi in control for good. N'Diaye scored for the visitors before Alex Garcia added a long jumper and Popovic finished the quarter with free throws as the Maccabi lead stood at 60-46 entering the last period.
Popovic and Sharp traded triples at the start of the fourth quarter, but Maciulis managed to bring Zalgiris within 10. Sharp hit another triple only to see Popovic drive for a basket. A third Sharp three lifted Maccabi to 71-57 as Zalgiris called timeout. Even after the stop, baskets by Morris and Vujcic kept the momentum with the hosts as the crowd began to celebrate winning Group F. A Casspi slam with a minute to go punctuated the win to the delight of a standing crowd.
Thursday, March 20, 2008