Tau Ceramica reached its first-ever Euroleague Final Four with an intense 66-64 comeback victory over Benetton Treviso at home in Vitoria, Spain on Thursday. Tau was down by 5 points with under 3 minutes left, but survived with a game-tying triple from Pablo Prigioni before Luis Scola scored the only basket after that. Tau held Benetton scoreless in the final minute, enough to make a sellout crowd in Fernando Buesa Arena go wild. Tau swept the best-of-three quarterfinal series 2-0 and will now face CSKA in the semifinals on May 6 in Moscow. Arvydas Macijauskas, who received the Euroleague March MVP trophy in a short ceremony after the game, led the winners with 20 points on 4 of 8 three-pointers. Scola added 12 points and Prigioni 10, including 2 key three-pointers in the final 4 minutes. Marlon Garnett led Benetton with 16 points, including the first 8 in a 0-14 run that put his team ahead 51-57 lead midway through the final period. Ramunas Siskauskas added 14 points, Massimo Bulleri 13 and Marcus Goree 12 for the guests.
Benetton started the game very focused on defense, and quickly showed that its blowout loss at home in the first game was only a memory. After Tau went up 2-1 on Prigioni's layup, Goree and Siskauskas rattled in three-pointers to send Benetton ahead 2-9 in less than 3 minutes, forcing Tau's first timeout. Things didn't change significantly after that, as Benetton managed to stop Scola inside, while getting a dunk by Denis Marconato and a layup by Garnett to stay up 6-13. Macijauskas stepped up with a monster three-pointer to pull Tau closer, but Matteo Soragna quickly matched him from the opposite corner to keep a safe margin of 10-16 for Benetton. Tau could only get free throws from Jose Manuel Calderon until Siskauskas blasted another triple that made it 14-19. Calderon saved the hosts with the last 3 points of the quarter, pulling Tau within 17-19 after 10 minutes.
Scola's first basket tied the game 19-19 to open the second quarter, but Goree and Bulleri seized back a 19-24 lead for Benetton on a three-ponter and jumper, respectively. Tau reacted quickly this time, riding a triple by Macijauskas to a 9-0 in which he added 2 more jumpers and Scola a layup that pushed the hosts in front, 28-22. Tau's defense had improved, forcing Benetton to take bad shots, but the visitors survived thanks to its power under the boards. As in the first quarter, Benetton coach Ettore Messina played without point guards for a couple more minutes in which Tau had a pair of playmakers, Prigioni and Calderon, together on court. Neither side managed to make its tactic work enough as 4 minutes passed with only a basket by Tiago Splitter of Tau, which now led 32-26. Before the half could end, however, Garnett and Siskauskas reached the line for 4 perfect free throws that cut the difference to 32-30 at the break.
Little changed after the break. The defenses ruled and the rim seemed to get smaller for the first 5 minutes. A three-point play by Splitter to open the second half had put Tau up 35-30, but slowly and surely, Benetton used a layup by Bulleri, dunk by Goree and jumper by Marconato to come back within 37-36. Buller did the honors of tying it up, 39-39, on a driving layup that came with a free throw for a three-point play. Scola and Soragna traded layups as the tie held, then Siskauskas gave Benetton its first lead of the second half. No sooner had he done that, however, than Sergi Vidal nailed a three-pointer that put Tau back in front, and to which Kornel David added a basket inside that made it 46-43 at the end of the third quarter.
Tau's good streak remained alive as Macijauskas nailed a three pointer and Splitter followed a monster block on Goree with an easy layup to extend hosts' lead to 51-43 early in the last quarter. Messina asked for a timeout, after which Garnett came out and changed the game with 8 points in a row on back-to-back triples and two-point jumper for a 51-51 tie after after 33 minutes. Benetton didn't stop there. Bulleri capped the comeback with 2 free throws after a flagrant foul by Splitter to give the lead back to his team. Goree upped the Benetton advantage to 51-57 midway through the quarter with a layup and a dunk. Then Garnett answers a triple by Macijauskas to keep the difference at 6 points, 54-60, with 3 minutes to go. Just when it seemed Benetton would keep control, Scola and Prigioni appeared. Prigioni made the first big shot, a triple, soon after Garnett's. Scola matched two-point shots by Siskauskas and Bulleri into the next-to-last minute, with Benetton still ahead, 61-64. That's when Prigioni changed the momentum with another triple that tied the score, 64-64, and levitated the crowd in Vitoria. A minute was left, and during it, Benetton couldn't manage a single point. But with 45 seconds left, Tau fed Scola inside, and he hit the shot from close that turned out to be the game-winner. Marconato missed a mid-range jumper on next possession, and although Tau missed too, the rebound went to the home team out of bounds with under a second left. It was over, and Tau Ceramica was going to its first Final Four.
Thursday, April 7, 2005