Tau Cermaica edged Lietuvos Rytas 87-84 on Wednesday night at the Fernando Buesa Arena, becoming the first team to clinch a spot in the Quarterfinal Playoffs. Tau improved to 4-0 in Group E and can clinch first place and a home-court advantage in the quarterfinals with one win in its remaining games. Meanwhile short-handed Lietuvos Rytas battled valiantly, but came up short, dropping to 1-3. Head coach Aleksandar Trifunovic's side will host Fenerbahce Ulker next week, hoping to climb to second place in the group. An exciting back-and-forth encounter came down to the final seconds, with the visitors down 3 and looking to score. However Mindaugas Lukauskis’s three-point attempt at the buzzer was rejected by Gabe Muoneke, sealing the win. The backcourt of Zoran Planinic and Pablo Prigioni shined bright for Tau, leading the way with 16 points apiece. Planinic also dished a season-high 8 assists. Mirza Teletovic added 15 points, Tiago Splitter had 13 and Will McDonald 10. Simas Jasaitis, who scored 12 for Tau against his former team, was carried off the court after a knee-to-knee collision with Jackson Vroman in the closing seconds. Kenan Bajramovic led L. Rytas with 18 points, Vroman posted 15 points and 7 rebounds, Chuck Eidson tallied 15 points, Hollis Price 14 and Mindaugas Lukauskis finished with 13 points and a career-best 8 assists.
Lietuvos Rytas started strong, trying to show it wasn't going to give anything up easy. Vroman opened fire, followed by a triple from Eidson and a layup by Price for an early 3-7 lead after three minutes. The answer came fast, as McDonald rose to sink a hook shoot and capped a steal with a monster dunk to tie the game. Tau, knowing that the visitors' frontcourt was short because of injuries, looked for inside passes on every play to punish their big men. McDonald smashed the rim again and Planinic hit a jumper for a 13-9 lead, as Sergi Vidal had to be replaced by Prigioni because of an ankle injury midway through the first period. The first triple from Jasaitis widened the gap a bit more, forcing an urgent time-out by L. Rytas Trifunovic. Although Eidson broke the hosts' defense with a one-handed dunk right after that, Teletovic hit his second three to set a comfortable 19-10 edge for Tau after seven minutes. L. Rytas didn’t give up, however, as Bajramovic came to the rescue with 5 points in a row to reduce the gap to 23-19. The rally didn't end here, as Eidson and Lukauskis got the visitors within 25-23 with 30 seconds to go, taking advantage of Tau’s soft defense. Although Planinic hit a three in Tau’s last possession, Price did the same to close the first period with a narrow 28-26 lead for the home side.
Prigioni banked a shot to open the second quarter, a few seconds before Tau head coach Neven Spahija decided to give James Singleton his first Euroleague minutes, replacing Jasaitis. The hosts' happiness didn't last for long, as Eidson and Bajramovic combined for 4 points to tie the game at 30-30, to resurrect the guests’ hopes. But L. Rytas didn't stop here. A free throw by Lukauskis and a fastbreak by Eidson gave the visitors their biggest lead so yet, 30-34, forcing a timeout from Spahija, who demanded a quick reaction from his players. The speech proved useful, as Tau increased activity on defense and sparked a 9-0 run that erased the crowd's nervousness in a blink of an eye. But once again, Tau forgot to show the same desire once they got a solid margin. Back-to-back three-pointers by Martynas Gecevicius and Bajramovic, a powerful dunk by Vroman and three free throws by Lukauskis took the game upside down and returned leadership to the guests, 41-44, with one minute to go. Both teams exchanged quick baskets in the last possessions, as a late acrobatic layup by Vroman allowed L. Rytas to keep a slim 45-48 lead at halftime.
Prigioni needed only one minute to tie the game with a triple, but Tau focused only on three-point shooting and forgot to push inside. That was exploited by L. Rytas, as it had no problem to save energy and avoid early fouls by its frontcourt. Bajramovic continued striking against his national team mate Teletovic, and Price hit twice from the free throw line for a 50-56 edge for the visitors. Jasaitis and Planinic came to the rescue at that point; the former punished his former team with 2 threes and the latter hit a basket-plus-foul that raised the third personal to Vroman's line. Another three, this time by Prigioni, broke the visitors' momentum and sent the game to a timeout with the hosts leading 64-60 with three minutes to go. Price took over to keep L. Rytas in the fight, starting a nice scoring battle with Prigioni. The differences remained steady for the remainder of the quarter, although L. Rytas got bad news after Bajramovic committed his fourth foul entering the last minute. A free throw by Jasaitis closed the quarter with Tau leading by 5 points, 72-67.
Although Teletovic hit a three right after the break to give a solid cushion to the hosts, Lukauskis led a 0-7 run that got L. Rytas within 75-74 in less than a minute. The guests played smart defense, forcing the hosts to take outside shots instead of banging inside with Splitter, who wasn’t able to add more than a single point against youngster Michalis Anisimovas from the free-throw line. Planinic added one more for a 3-point edge, but Eidson hit a big three to tie the game and start Tau’s nightmare. L. Rytas protected its boards and found easy baskets in transition. Anisimovas and Jomantas scored 4 points to give the guests a 77-81 edge with less than four minutes to go. When things seemed to be really bad for the hosts, Planinic took over and begun his own show to bring his team back into the fight. He decided to play one-on-one situations taking advantage of his size and broke L. Rytas’s scheme for a while. First, he fed Splitter for a big dunk, and followed with an amazing coast-to-coast assist for a Muoneke layup. A three-pointer in the next play returned the lead back to Tau, 84-81, with three minutes to go, starting a new game. After a timeout, Planinic dished another assist to Splitter, who smashed the ball for an almost definitive 86-81 lead, but Bajramovic kept Lietuvos alive with a huge three entering the last minute.
Neither Tau nor L. Rytas were able to score in the following possessions. Muoneke rose to become the hosts’ savior. He first recovered a ball with 39 seconds left, but Tau didn’t exploit it to close the game. The guests took advantage of the fact that they weren’t in foul bonus to prevent L. Rytas from taking a three-point shot. When Price committed a turnover with 7 seconds to go that seemed to be the end. Jasaitis was fouled with 5 seconds left, but went down and was carried off the floor. Sergi Vidal took his 2 free throws, despite being unable to run because of an ankle injury. He hit one, giving Tau a 3-point lead, as Muoneke showed up again to block the last attempt of Lukauskis to send Tau to the quarterfinals.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008