Maccabi Elite held off a stern second-half charge from AXA FC Barcelona to record an 81-75 win in Game 1 of the teams' best-of-three Euroleague Basketball Quarterfinal Playoffs series on Tuesday night at Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv. The Israeli champs can now earn a trip to the Final Four in Madrid with a win at Barcelona in Game 2 on Thursday. Maccabi used a 9-0 run bridging first two periods to take the lead and the hosts would increase it to 11 a number of times in the second quarter. Barcelona cut the gap to 36-29 by halftime. Gianluca Basile and Ersan Ilyasova each drilled 3 three-pointers in the third quarter as Barca came back to tie the score at 57-57. But Maccabi never fell behind despite constant pressure from the visitors and continued dominant play from Basile and Ilyasova. But Nikola Vujcic, who entered the game shooting 47.8% from the line, was perfect from the charity stripe when it mattered most and a traveling call on Basile with 20 seconds left and his team down 6 signaled the end for Barcelona. Maccabi was led by its big trio of Esteban Batista with 15 points, Terrence Morris with 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Vujcic with 12. Yotam Halperin added 11 points and 5 assists and Will Bynum, who made his third start of the season, also score 11. Ilyasova finished with a career-high 21 points and 9 rebounds, Basile added 17 and Mario Kasun posted 12 points and 8 boards for Barcelona, whose biggest weakness was star guard Jaka Lakovic, who finished with just 6 points on 1-for-10 shooting.
From the start the visitors stamped their tempo on the game with tough defense and slow, long attacks. Accordingly, after David Bluthenthal missed the game's first shot, Denis Marconato put Barcelona on top with a long jumper. Bynum answered with Maccabi’s first points before Ilyasova's tip-in on the offensive glass kept the visitors ahead. Morris found a cutting Nikola Vujcic for basket-plus-foul and Maccabi's first lead, but Kasun made his presence felt in the paint with two baskets that made it 5-8. Morris bettered him with the game’s next three buckets as Maccabi went up 11-8. Gary Neal buried a big triple off the dribble to tie the game. Maccabi kept trying to get Vujcic involved without much success, while a free throw by Kasun put Barcelona back ahead. Bynum sank a five-meter shot coming off a screen that Fran Vazquez erased with a mid-range shot. Maccabi kept dominating the defensive boards and Batista tied the game with a free throw, 14-14. A second-chance layup by Morris allowed Maccabi to regain the lead, 16-14, after 10 minutes.
Maccabi came out for the second period determined and took over with a Bynum steal that led to an Omri Casspi slam. Yotan Halperin and Batista added baskets as Barcelona called timeout trailing by 8. Ilyasova stopped the bleeding and Roger Grimau and Halperin traded free throws, but Maccabi continued to pull away and when Batista got a lucky roll inside, the hosts’ lead reached double figures. Maccabi’s defense and Barca’s poor outside shooting allowed the hosts to remain in control, however a couple of fouls gave the visitors extra chances. After Alex Acker’s steal and uncontested layup and an Ilyasova basket on the offensive glass, Maccabi called timeout. The last minutes of the half were anticlimactic as Barcelona failed to make a field goal in the remaining three-and-a-half minutes, but Maccabi could not take advantage and the teams went to the locker rooms for the break with the hosts ahead 36-29.
Barcelona made its way back as a Kasun slam and an Ilyasova basket on the offensive glass brought the visitors within 4. Alex Garcia stepped up from downtown, but Ilyasova matched him at the other end. Basile cut the gap to 42-39 with his first triple. Maccabi responded quickly with a Halperin three and a Vujcic basket, however Basile’s hot hand kept it close. The three-point shootout continued with Bluthenthal and Ilyasova. Bynum and Kasun then traded baskets before Bluthenthal and Basile swapped triples. Pepe Sanchez fed Kasun inside to get his team within 1 and after a Batista slam, Ilyasova drilled his third three of the period to tie the score at 57-57 and set the stage for an exciting fourth quarter.
Casspi drilled a three to put Maccabi back on top and Halperin then scored on the break, but a red-hot Ilyasova added another three for Barcelona. Batista and Ilyasova traded free throws before a Marconato jumper made it 65-63. Bynum drilled a three-pointer to put Maccabi up 5. Nerves seemed to be getting to both sides now as sloppy play ensued. Morris shined with a highlight reel offensive rebound and slam in one motion to increase Maccabi’s lead to 71-63 with four minutes to go as Barcelona took a timeout. Ilyasova came up big on the defensive end with a big block on Batista and then Basile drilled a clutch triple to keep his team’s chances alive, but at the other end Vujcic drew a foul and hit free throws. A Basile finger roll made it a 5-point game with less than two minutes remaining. Kasun added a free throw and then an exciting minute of back-and-forth action ensued, with both teams missing baskets that could have been instrumental. Vujcic went back to the line with 28 seconds left and netted 2 to give the hosts a 6-point edge. Then a traveling call on Basile ended Barcelona’s chances and Maccabi wrapped up the win with free throws.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008