Maccabi Tel Aviv moved to the brink of qualification for the Euroleague quarterfinal playoffs on Thursday night, returning to winning ways in the competition with a 77-67 victory over Zalgiris Kaunas at Nokia Arena.
Maccabi improved to a 7-3 record, strengthening its hold on third place in Group F and ensuring it will have a two-game lead over the team in fifth place after this week’s action with just four games remaining in the Top 16.
The top four teams in the group will advance to the playoffs, with the top two to also have home-court advantage in the best-of-five series’.
Maccabi continued its mediocre form from recent weeks on Thursday, but was fortunately facing the group’s weakest side at Nokia and toughed out its eighth victory from nine Euroleague home games this season.
Tyrese Rice led Maccabi with 19 points and six assists, while Ricky Hickman scored 14 points and Guy Pnini and Sofoklis Schortsanitis added 11 and 10 points, respectively.
Justin Dentmon had 14 points for Kaunas, which fell to a 1-9 record.
Maccabi began the game in what has become typical fashion this season, feeding Sofo the ball under the basket in the hope that the Greek center would dominate with his physique.
It worked initially, with Sofo scoring six of Maccabi’s first nine points. However, the yellowand- blue lacked intensity on the defensive end and only ended the first period tied with Zalgiris (20-20) thanks to Joe Ingles’s layup.
There was still very little to separate the teams in the second frame, until David Blu caught fire and almost singlehandedly gave Maccabi a head start in the second half.
Blu followed up two free throws with two accurate three-pointers and his eight points in the final 90 seconds of the half gave Tel Aviv a seven- point cushion (40-33).
Tel Aviv held Zalgiris to 13 points in the second quarter and its defensive play at the start of the second half was the cause behind its margin mushrooming to 14 points.
The hosts held the Lithuanians scoreless in the first five minutes of the third period, with a Sofo basket taking the gap to 47-33.
However, Kauns would score 14 points in the second half of the quarter, closing to within seven points before Pnini’s buzzer- beater from beyond the arc ensured Maccabi still held a double- digit margin (57-47) entering the final frame.
Another Pnini three to open the fourth period looked to have killed off Zalgiris’s challenge, but the 38-year-old Sarunas Jasikevicius, who helped Maccabi to back-to-back Euroleague titles in 2004-2005, gave the hosts a fright by scoring seven quick points to bring the visitors within six points (67-61).
Kaunas would come no closer though and Maccabi will aim to all but secure its place in the last eight with a win at Partizan Belgrade next Thursday.