Mac TA staves off late Zalgiris run for win

Mallet leads yellow-and-blue to crucial 1st Euroleague Top 16 victory with Barca looming.

MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Keith Langford 311 (photo credit: Reuters )
MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Keith Langford 311
(photo credit: Reuters )
Maccabi Tel Aviv may have only gotten its Euroleague Top 16 campaign underway on Thursday night, but its 84-76 win over Zalgiris Kaunas in Lithuania was a crucial first step on the way to the quarterfinals.
With its last meaningful Euroleague game coming five weeks ago, more than two weeks before new playmaker Demond Mallet even joined the team, there were some question marks hanging over the yellow-and-blue entering its Top 16 opener.
Those doubts were answered impressively on Thursday, with Maccabi racing to an 11-point half-time lead (48-37) before toughing out a tight fourth quarter for a vital win.
They played one good period, but we won the three other quarters and were excellent for 30 minutes,” Maccabi coach David Blatt said. “We were ready and sharp and played with a lot of passion to claim a win which everyone understands is extremely important.”
Mallet had 15 points, including four three pointers, in his Euroleague debut for Tel Aviv, with Lior Eliyahu scoring 14, reaching 1,000 points for his Euroleague career.
Keith Langford was excellent with 12 points, seven assists and five rebounds, while Richard Hendrix scored 11, and more importantly, was stellar on the defensive end.
Milovan Rakovic had 15 points for Kaunas, which to its credit never gave up the chase.
Maccabi hosts Barcelona in its second Top 16 game next week and Blatt admitted that Thursday’s win allows the team to calmly prepare for the crunch affair.
It took Maccabi a few minutes to find its rhythm in Lithuania, but when it did so, Zalgiris was helpless.
Mallet showed the ruthless touch he adds to Maccabi’s roster by hitting two straight three-pointers to open a five-point margin (12-7) and another triple by Devin Smith gave the visitors a 23-16 lead after 10 minutes.
A David Blu jumper at the start of the second period extended the margin to double-digits (26-16), prompting Kaunas coach Aleksandr Trifunovic to quickly call a timeout.
However, there was nothing the Serbian coach could do to get his team to tighten its defense and Mallet’s three with 4:23 to play in the half took Maccabi’s advantage to a record 15 points (39-24).
A Theo Papaloukas basket in the dying seconds of the first half ensured the yellow-and-blue still had a doublefigure cushion (48-37) at the break, but Maccabi would find points very hard to come by in the third quarter, scoring just six in the first six minutes of the second half.
Marko Popovic’s free throws capped a 7-0 run which brought the hosts within four points (54-50), but Tel Aviv calmed the local support by scoring eight of the next 10 points to reestablish a doubledigit lead (62-52).
However, the game would be completely wide open with 10 minutes to play, with Kaunas ending the third frame with a 9-2 surge to cut the deficit to just three points (64-61).
A DeJuan Collins three at the start of the fourth period closed the gap to just two points (66-64) and the teams were still only separated by a single possession (71-69) after Popovic matched Mallet’s three with 4:37 on the clock.
Maccabi and Kaunas exchanged baskets for much of the subsequent minutes, with an acrobatic Langford basket opening a 77-72 lead with 1:40 remaining.
The hosts wouldn’t come back from that, with a crucial block by Hendrix followed by a point from the line (80- 74) clinching the win.