Tau Ceramica upped its Top 16 chances and shook the Group C standings a bit on Wednesday by stopping former co-leader Benetton 88-81 to end the Italian team's six-game winning streak. Tau is now 5-4 and sure to at least keep sharing fourth place. Benetton was knocked down to 6-3 and out of its first-place tie with Efes (7-2), which won on the road at Asvel. Tau grabbed a 13-point lead at halftime and managed to stay ahead until the final buzzer. Arvydas Macijauskas led the winners with 21 points, while Sergi Vidal had 17 points and 7 rebounds. Luis Scola added 15, Andrew Betts had 14 while Pablo Prigioni added 13 and 7 assists. Benetton was led by Jorge Garbajosa and Tyus Edney, with 17 points apiece. Massimo Bulleri added 16 while Denis Marconato chipped in 10 for the guests.
The game started with both teams trying to run the court as quickly as possible. Tau, with Vidal replacing injured Andres Nocioni in the starting lineup, went early to its backcourt. The first inside basket arrived with a right-handed hook by Betts midway through the quarter. On the other end, Edney was the main weapon for the visitors, and his pair of baskets-plus-foul shots were enough to keep the game balanced in those first minutes. The first three-pointer by Macijauskas opened a short lead for Tau at 20-15, but Benetton answered quickly with baskets by Pittis and Bulleri that tied the score once again. The third foul by Kornel David raised the crowd from their seats, and also did the flagrant foul called on former Tau player Marcelo Nicola a couple of minutes later. All those highs and lows fired up both teams even more, and they were playing at their highest level of intensity. Edney, with 4 points in the last minute, helped his team to reach the end of the first periof with a 28-28 tie on the scoreboard.
A 7-0 Tau run that included 5 points by Macijauskas opened the second quarter by forcing a Benetton timeout with a sudden 35-28 on the scoreboard. Benetton put on a zone defense that caused Tau some trouble until a three-pointer from the corner by Bulleri reduced the gap to 4 points at 39-35, forcing the home team timeout. Tau kept turning the ball but Benetton was unable to get closer due to poor shooting. In that moment, Prigioni took over. First he nailed a corner three-pointer, then stole the following ball to assist Scola for a 48-40 score. Benetton tried another timeout, but after it Calderon and Prigioni threw down another triple each to send the lead soaring with just 1 minute left until the half. The gap hit a high of 14 points on free throws by Vidal, who also took a no-look assist from Prigioni to close the first half with a 58-45 score and the Vitoria fans going wild.
Things didn't change after the intermission. Tau kept increasing its lead thanks to tough defense that provided easy fastbreak baskets. A pair free throws by Macijauskas gave Tau another biggest margin, 17 points, with 7 minutes to play in the third period. A 0-6 run let Benetton take a little breath just after that, as coach Ettore Messina decided to use two point guards together on court. The resurgence didn't last, however, because Tau reacted quickly to recover a solid 16-point cushion after 26 minutes. With scorer Maurice Evans in foul trouble, Benetton was struggling on offense, unable to get easy baskets from open shots. The hosts took advantage of that to keep their lead high, at 78-64, at the end of 30 minutes..
After both teams exchanged a couple of baskets in the beginning of the fourth quarter, Evans was fouled out and Scola got his fourth, forcing Marconato and Betts to take the floor again. Prigioni soon got his fourth foul, too, and that disrupted Tau's good stretch. Two dunks in a row by Marconato and Garbajosa tightened the score a bit, but Benetton never managed to be a serious menace for the hosts. A three-pointer by Ghilherme Giovanonni and a couple of foul shots by Bulleri reduced the gap to 9 points, 84-75, with 2 minutes to go , but it was not a rally. Tau knew how to finish with patience and kept Benetton far through the last seconds.
Wednesday, January 14, 2004