In a rematch of last year's title game, Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv moved a step closer to a historic Euroleague three-peat on Friday with a 85-70 win over Tau Ceramica in the first Final Four semifinal game at sold-out Sazka Arena in Prague. Maceo Baston scored 20 points, grabbed 7 rebounds and had a Euroleague career-best 6 blocks to lead Maccabi to a spot in Sunday's final, where it will face the winner of Friday's other semifinal, CSKA against Barcelona. If Maccabi can win the title on Sunday, it will join ASK Riga and Jugoplastika Split as the only teams to win three consecutive Euroleague titles. Maccabi coach Pini Gershon also has the chance to do the same, something than only the late Aleksandar Gomelsky has accomplished. Maccabi will play in its seventh Euroleague final, while Tau settles for a spot in the third place game for the first time in club history. Maccabi already led 51-32 at halftime and boosted its margin to 77-48 early in the final period, enough to seal the win. Anthony Parker had all his 19 points in the first half, Nikola Vujcic added 16 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists while Tal Burstein had 12 points for Maccabi. Luis Scola led Tau Ceramica with 17 points, Travis Hansen had 15 while Serkan Erdogan and Kornel David each added 12. In addition to clinching a spot in the final, Maccabi advanced to the first annual NBA Europe Live tournament in Cologne, Germany next October.
Maccabi won the tip and scored first after just 18 seconds on a Baston layup, which Scola matched on the other end with a put-back for a 2-2 tie. Vujcic scored in the paint, but Hansen tied the game again with a mid-range jumper. Both teams had started the game with man-to-man defense with different frontcourt pairings, as Scola took Vujcic in defense and Baston faced the Tau superstar in the other end. Vujcic fed Will Solomon for a layup, then had a big block on Scola, before finding Parker for a big triple from the top of the key. Tau struggled on both ends and Maccabi made the most of it. Solomon fired in a long jumper and then Parker ran the break for a three-point play, which capped a 10-0 run and gave Maccabi a 14-4 lead midway through the opening quarter. Tau called timeout and it proved to help as Tiago Splitter scored on a put-back to end a three-plus minute drought. Then Hansen added a three from the corner, but Parker answered from downtown to keep Maccabi ahead, 17-8. Scola scored around the basket and Erdogan, who had replaced Casey Jacobsen, shined with a driving layup-plus-foul to keep Tau close at 17-14. Vujcic came to the rescue with a big three-pointer and then fed Tal Burstein to extend Maccabi's lead to 22-14. Hansen nailed his second triple, but a left-handed layup by Jamie Arnold allowed Maccabi to keep a 24-17 lead after 10 minutes.
Erdogan found Scola for an uncontested layup early in the second quarter, while Maccabi, now without Parker on court, had trouble scoring. Erdogan kept pacing Tau with a catch-and-shoot triple which made it a two-point game, 24-22. Parker immediately returned to the floor, while Tau coach Velimir Perasovic opted to rest Scola. Vujcic took over with his second three-pointer, which Parker followed with a layup-plus-foul. Maccabi improved its defense and went after every ball. On the other end, Solomon slashed for another three-point play which capped a 9-0 run and extended Maccabi's lead to 33-22. Kornel David worked hard to score inside, but Parker immediately matched it with a layup and Baston copied him for a 13-point Maccabi lead, 37-24. Tau kept looking for Scola and David inside, but Maccabi played with much more intensity and coach Perasovic again called timeout. Tau went back to its starting lineup, but still could not find an answers on offense, while Maccabi continued attacking the basket and scoring. Free throws by Baston and Arnold gave Maccabi its biggest lead so far, 42-26, as Splitter went back to the bench with a forearm injury. David hit two foul shots, but Baston erased them with a long jumper and the ever-present Parker made a few more free throws to boost the reigning champs' lead to 46-28. Sergi Vidal tried to change things with a fast break layup and some more sloppy Maccabi play on offense gave Hansen a chance to throw down a two-handed slam, but Maccabi was now on fire, as Parker buried a corner three for his 19th point and a 19-point halftime margin, 51-32.
Vujcic opened the second half with a tough layup and then Burstein fired in a five-meter jumper that put Maccabi up by 23 points, 55-32. Predrag Drobnjak tried to ignite a Tau comeback with a pull-up jumper, but Maccabi thrilled its traveling support as Vujcic set Baston up for a two-handed alley-oop dunk and Solomon soon added a fast break layup for a 59-34 Maccabi margin. Hansen fired in a triple as Tau tried to use short possessions, which fit the run-and-gun Maccabi style. Baston again took on the entertainer role with a rare three, while Erdogan and Pablo Prigioni missed from downtown on the other end. Maccabi remained focused as Burstein beat the buzzer with a driving layup, forcing Tau to call a much-needed timeout. Maccabi rode Burstein's hot hand as the swingman canned a six-meter jumper and Baston dunked it to cap a game-breaking 26-5 run. Roko-Leni Ukic hit a jumper but Baston bettered him with a triple that hit the rim, went up and fell down. Scola stepped up with back-to-back layups, but Vujcic banked a jumper for a 30-point Maccabi lead, 73-43. Tau continued trying to take quick shots without success until Hansen buried a three-pointer. Scola scored again around the basket, but the outcome was already clear, 73-48, at the end of the third quarter.
Tau tried to please its fans in the final period, but Maccabi seemed to be on another level, almost like the 2004 Euroleague final against Skipper Bologna, dominating every aspect of the game. Baston drilled another jumper while Burstein scored in transition to restore a 77-48 Maccabi lead. Tau now had only its pride to play for as the Maccabi fans on hand had already started to celebrate. Vujcic banked in another shot before David threw in a long jumper. Erdogan nailed a three-pointer, but it was looking to be too little, too late for Tau. David hit a jumper while Ukic capped a 0-9 run which brought Tau within 79-59 midway through the final period. Burstein nailed another shot and Arnold scored twice near the basket to give Maccabi a 85-63 lead with two minutes to go. Everything was said and done at that point, as Maccabi had made it to the Euroleague final!
Friday, April 28, 2006