Maccabi TA rallies to keep fate in its hands

Yellow-and-blue storm back from early deficit to secure crucial Euroleague victory.

keith langford (photo credit: Reuters)
keith langford
(photo credit: Reuters)
Maccabi Tel Aviv advanced to the Euroleague quarterfinals for the eighth time in nine years on Thursday night.
Maccabi edged Zalgiris Kaunas 70-66 at Nokia Arena to improve to 3-2 in Top 16 Group H, while Barcelona beat Bennet Cantu 63-62 to eliminate Tel Aviv's only remaining rival.
Maccabi trailed by as many as 17 points (30-13) against the Lithuanians, but fought back to take its first lead of the game in the fourth period before clinching the win in the final minute after some nerve-wracking moments.
Keith Langford led Maccabi with 17 points on Thursday night, with Richard Hendrix adding 11 points and nine boards and Theo Papaloukas coming off the bench to make a crucial contribution, scoring seven points and dishing out seven assists.
Sonny Weems had 20 points for Kaunas.
Despite coach David Blatt's best efforts, all of the talk of a Maccbai win being a foregone conclusion clearly got to his players, with the yellow-and-blue desperately lacking intensity to start the game.
A Weems basket gave Zalgiris an 8-0 lead after two-and-a-half minutes and Kaunas had little trouble picking apart Tel Aviv's lethargic defense, with a Paulius Jankunas three-pointer taking the lead to double figures (14-3).
Blatt's attempts to invigorate his team bore no fruit and DeJuan Collins's two triples to end the first period extended the margin 25-11.
Maccabi surely thought matters couldn?t get any worse after hitting just three of 14 field goals in the first 10 minutes, but Weems opened the second quarter with five straight points and the yellow-and-blue found itself in a 17-point hole (30-13).
Papaloukas had scored just seven points in a total 24 minutes in Maccabi's first four Top 16 games, but he sparked Tel Aviv back into life in the second period, scoring seven points until the end of the half and orchestrating the team's play to perfection.
An Eliyahu lay-up capped a 12-0 run which brought the hosts within five points (30-25) and a delightful Papaloukas assist to Hendrix closed the deficit to just two points (35-33) inside the final minute of the half.
A four-point deficit (37-33) at the break surely didn?t worry Maccabi considering the margin it had already closed, but the hosts stuttered once more at the start of the second half, missing open shots and allowing Kaunas to regain a double-digit gap.
Milovan Rakovic's basket made it 45-35 with 4:20 remaining in the period, but Maccabi was still well within striking distance with one quarter to play, with Papaloukas feeding Hendrix for a dunk to bring the hosts within five (49-44).
It took Maccabi another minute to take its first lead of the night, with Keith Langford's three-point play being followed by Devin Smith's triple (50-49).
Another Smith basket from beyond the arc took Tel Aviv's lead to seven points (61-54), but Kaunas wasn?t going to give up without a real fight, with Salenga's five points bringing the Lithuanians within one point (63-62) with 3:45 remaining.
Zalgiris was back in the lead with 1:42 to go after two more points from Weems (66-65), but Langford free throws put Maccabi back in front and the American guard made it 69-66 with a solo effort with 24 seconds to play.