The return of a hero and Top 16 hopes converged in Kaunas, Lithuania on Thursday as Arvydas Sabonis stepped on the floor and led Zalgiris Kaunas to a do-or-die 89-81 victory over red-hot Unicaja in Group B before a sellout crowd of 4,700 delirious fans. Sabonis ended two weeks of absence due to sickness by taking the floor in the second quarter and proceeding to post 23 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks in 23 minutes for the winners. Mindaugas Timinskas added 16 points, Giedrius Gustas 15 and Ed Cota and Tanoka Beard bagged 10 apiece as Zalgiris improved to 5-6 and solved any possible future ties with Unicaja, whose record fell to 3-8. For the guests, Berni Rodriguez shot brilliantly from the beyond the three-point arc, nailing 5 of 7 triples and finishing with 19 points, while Louis Bullock added 13, Mous Sonko 11 and Chuck Kornegay 10. But this night belonged to the big guy, who strode on the court after 10 minutes, made his first three shots, including a nifty reverse, and did everything right the rest of the way as Zalgiris survived to keep fighting in Group B.
Starting without Sabonis in the linueup, Zalgiris fell behind 2-5 after Bullock's triple for Unicaja. The score was tight throughout the first 10 minutes, though, as the lead changed hands several times. The hosts went up 14-9 until Rodriguez, who was on fire, brought Unicaja back with a triple. Walter Herrmann hit a layup in the fastbreak to tie the score at 18-18. Ed Cota broke through the Unicaja defense for a tough basket over the big men, but Rodriguez soared with his second triple that put the guests ahead 20-22 after 10 minutes.
Sabonis strode oncourt to start of the second quarter and showed no effects of his illness. He dropped a hook on the first play of the quarter and went on to hit the next 2 baskets also to put Zalgiris ahead 26-24. Rodriguez didn't back down from the Sabonis challenge, however, nailing 2 more triples that put the visitors up 26-30. German Gabriel joined the Unicaja three-point party for 30-33, but Giedrius Gustas and Sabonis led Zalgiris back to a 34-33 lead. Sabonis took a rest in the 18th minute but Zalgiris never allowed Unicaja to jump ahead, as the guests only managed to tie, until a last-second jumper by Tanoka Beard left Zalgiris ahead by 2 at the break, 42-40.
In the third quarter, the teams played fluently on offense as first Sonko tied the score and Timinskas landed a triple for a 48-45 Zalgiris edge. Sabonis was still the reference point on offense for Zalgiris as he dropped 3 straight points despite Unicaja double-teaming him in the paint. Zalgiris took command mid-way throught quarter with quick triples by Cota and Dainius Salenga for a 57-50 edge. Only Sonko responded from downtown for Unicaja, but the guests pulled closer when Larry Lewis turned an offensive rebound into a three-point play as Cota committed his fourth foul. The efficiency of Unicaja from the free throw line (11 of 12 at the end) kept the guests in the game, but a last free throw by Salenga left things at 63-62 after 30 minutes.
As it is almost a tradition in games between these two teams, the last quarter was a thriller and the game decided only in the final plays. Sabonis was decisive on both ends of the floor, although Unicaja landed the first blows: a pair of triples by Bullock that vaulted the guests ahead, 68-72. Larry Lewis then scored from 6 meters but Gustas and Sabonis gave the lead to Zalgiris, 76-74. The fifth triple without a miss for Rodriguez gave Unicaja a 78-79 edge, but that would be the last lead for the Spaniards. Led by a Sabas triple, Zalgiris went on a 7-0 run thanks also to offensive rebounds that broke the game open. Like that, the hosts were ahead 85-79 with 38 seconds to go. Sonko nailed a final triple, but 2 free throws by Cota gave Zalgiris the 87-82 edge and a final miss from three-point range by Bullock put the game on ice for Zalgiris.
Thursday, January 29, 2004