(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Tel Aviv will need to beat Panathinaikos next week at Nokia Arena to secure second place in Group B of the Euroleague, but could drop as far as fifth place in the standings if it loses to the Greek giant, after falling 77-75 to Olimpija Ljubljana on Thursday night.
Maccabi would have guaranteed itself the runner-up position in the group with a win in Slovenia, but once again this season the club squandered an early lead and failed to close out the game, losing for a sixth time in seven road games.
"This team has self-confidence problems," Tel Aviv coach Neven Spahija said after the game. "This has happened to us for the third straight time, and things like this can't happen to a great team. We have to work on this problem.
"I don't know what's worse, to lose the game, or to explain to our fans what's going on. I can promise them that we will not give up."
A defensive lapse by the visitors allowed Finnish guard Teemu Rannikko (16 points and four assists) to float the ball into the basket in the final seconds of the game and complete Olimpija's comeback from a double-digit, first half deficit.
Tel Aviv was ahead throughout the first two quarters and had a 10-point lead (42-32) at halftime. The visitors continued to cruise in the third period and were still up by two points (58-56) at the start of the fourth quarter.
A 14-0 run by Ljubljana gave the hosts a 70-60 lead with five minutes to play and Maccabi looked down and out.
Three-pointers by Derrick Sharp (18 points and seven rebounds) and a clutch basket from beyond the arc by Nikola Vujcic (13 points, 11 rebounds and four assists) tied the score with 17 seconds to go, but Rannikko dashed Maccabi's hopes of at least forcing overtime and gave his club its fourth Euroleague win of the season.
"I can't believe that the same thing has happened to us again," Vujcic said after the game. "In the locker room, we said that we can't lose our heads when we have a 10-point lead, but we lost it. This should not happen to Maccabi."
Lior Eliyahu, who added 12 points, was well aware of the implications of his team's loss in Slovenia. "We are suckers," he said. "We understand the meaning of this defeat; you could sense that in the dressing room.
"Nevertheless, I'm happy our fate is still in our hands. We must defeat Panathinaikos on Thursday."