By Amy Samin
Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv has qualified for the Euroleague quarterfinal playoffs, otherwise known as the Top 8, following their hard-fought win over Zalgiris Kaunas in game 5 of the Top 16 round. That victory, combined with Barcelona’s thrilling defeat of Cantù in Italy, puts Maccabi in second place in Group H, which means they will advance to the next round. Keith Langford was top scorer for Maccabi with 17 points, but it was Theo Papaloukas (7 points, 7 assists) whose game management and experience on the court led to his being named game MVP. Maccabi’s opponent (who will enjoy the home-court advantage) in the Top 8’s best-of-five playoff series will be determined by next week’s game between Unics Kazan and Panathinaikos.
David Blatt’s starting five were Richard Hendrix, Devin Smith, Lior Eliyahu, Demond Mallet, and Keith Langford. Zalgiris scored the first basket of the game in the first five seconds. Despite Maccabi’s battling for rebounds and tough defense, the visitors jumped to an 8 – 0 lead after two and a half minutes. Maccabi’s first points came from Eliyahu, and Sofo Schortsanitis added a putback to make it 14 – 5 halfway through the period. Zalgiris kept the momentum, however, as they enjoyed fifty percent shooting from both two and three point range, and the period ended with the visitors leading 25 – 11.
Sonny Weems opened the second quarter with a dunk and a three pointer for Zalgiris, but Maccabi’s team captain Tal Burstein drained a three of his own from the right corner, while Guy Pnini and Theo Papaloukas added layups to put Maccabi within ten, 30 – 20 four minutes into the quarter. Maccabi’s revitalized defense held Zalgiris to only five points in the first half of the period, while Langford scored from downtown (assist Pnini), and a great pass by Sofo in the paint to Eliyahu made it 30 – 25 with just under four minutes left in the half. Paulius Jankūnas and Marko Popović scored for the visitors to restore their double digit lead 35 - 25, but a stop-and-pop by Langford on the left wing nipped a potential run in the bud. A technical foul called on the Zalgiris coach resulted in two from the foul line by David Blu, and Papaloukas threaded the ball through defenders to Hendrix with under a minute remaining to make it a two point game, 35 – 33. But Popović added a layup in the final seconds of the half, and the teams went into the locker rooms with Zalgiris leading 37 – 33.
A layup by Sofo at the start of the third quarter made it a two point game again, but the first three and a half minutes of the game were most notable for the tough defense played at both ends of the court. Steals by Ohayon and Langford, broken plays, and a block by Hendrix put the stops on the Zalgiris offense, and at the same time the visitors’ shooting percentages started to slip. But eventually Zalgiris found their groove again, going on a 6 – 0 scoring run that put their lead at 45 – 35 midway through the period. Sofo jammed in a dunk (assist Langford) and added a layup (assist Blu) to put the deficit back under ten, and Blu’s classic catch and shoot from the left corner (assist Sofo) made it 48 – 42 with two minutes left in the quarter. A one-handed slam by Hendrix (assist Papaloukas) on the inbounds ended the period with the score 49 – 44, as Maccabi succeeded for the second straight quarter in keeping Zalgiris to only 12 points.
Langford’s layup and 1 at the start of the fourth quarter was followed by a trey from Smith on the right wing, and with a minute gone Maccabi took their first lead of the game, 50 – 49. It was short-lived, though, as Weems scored from two point range. Hendrix scored to make it 52 – 51, Maccabi, and Blu added points from downtown to give the home team a little breathing room, 55 – 51. Popović’s basket from outside the arc kept things interesting, but Langford and Smith scored back-to-back three pointers to make it 61 – 54 with six minutes left in the game. DeJuan Collins and teammates Dainius Salenga and Weems battled back, and despite excellent defense by Maccabi that included a huge block by Smith, Zalgiris recaptured the lead 66 – 65 with under two minutes remaining. Langford downed two free throws and added a layup to make it 69 – 66, Maccabi with twenty-four seconds left on the clock A point by Hendrix at the charity stripe locked things up, and Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv defeated Zalgiris Kaunas 70 – 66, helping to secure their spot in the Top 8 quarterfinals of the Euroleague.
Maccabi: Langford 17 points, 3 steals, 2 assists, 1 rebound; Hendrix 11 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal; Schortsanitis 10 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound; Blu 8 points, 4 rebounds, 1 steal; Papaloukas 7 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds; Smith 6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal; Eliyahu 5 points, 5 rebounds; Ohayon 2 points, 2 steals, 1 rebound, 1 assist; Pnini 2 points, 1 assist; Burstein 2 points, 1 rebound; Mallet 1 rebound.
Top scorers for Zalgiris: Weems 20 points; Salenga 12 points; Collins 11 points.