Maccabi Tel Aviv has risen above once again on the road, beating off a rally by Unciaja Malaga to take a 79-84 victory and retain a partial grip on the Group A leadership. The victory makes Maccabi (8-2), which shares first place with Benetton Treviso, almost a mathematical lock for the Top 16. Now the question is which of the two, having been tied for weeks now, will prevail in the race for first place. For Malaga (5-5), the picture remains the same, too, as in a fourth-place tie with Efes Pilsen and a likely fight to the wire for survival to the next round of play. A 10-point comeback had put Malaga close with in the last minutes on Thursday, but the combination of Michael Brisker's three-pointers and Milan Gurovic's errors decided the duel for the Israelis. Maccabi was led by Anthony Parker with 22 points, and he was helped by Brisker with 20 (5 of 8 threes) and Nate Huffman with 16. For the losers, Moustapha Sonko had 15 points, followed by Berni Rodriguez with 14 points, Milan Gurovic with 12 and Chuck Kornegay with 10.
The first quarter began with Maccabi pulling for an early 2-7 lead which caught Bozidar Malkovic's men off guard. Unicaja worked its way back into the game with the help of Sonko's generalship. Malaga would end up being superior to Maccabi in rebounds (38-27), but that wasn't translated in the score because those came from Unicaja's missed shots that turned into missed second options as well. At the end of the first period, though, the game was anyone's with Maccabi up by two, 15-17.
The second quarter began with the hosts neutralizing the deficit with a 7-0 run that put them in the lead, 22-17. But from there, Maccabi pulled away easier than it would have been expected, after some baskets by Parker, to an 11-point lead before the break 31-42.
The second half began in the same manner, with Maccabi maintaining leads of a dozen points or more. Brisker hit threes from everywhere and Maljkovic seemed to have no solution to stop him. He had made 5 of 5 threes by then. It was a three-point play by Berni Rodriguez that pulled the trigger for Malaga and began to cut down the deficit little by little from 45-58 to 56-63. The last layup by Sonko with a bonus free throw shook the house full of Malaga fans. The quarter ended 56-65 but few doubted that Unicaja was coming back.
The last quarter continued the show as Unicaja drew closer and closer. Huffman was completely out of the game. The scoreboard showed a mere five-point deficit, 67-72, when Unicaja missed three consecutive and easy offensive plays. The crowd attending the game realized that their team just couldn't win this game. Gurovic decided that he was the one to take the shooting responsibilities, but it wasn't his night, and everything he shot systematically went out of the rim.
Thursday, January 10, 2002