VILNIUS - Lietuvos Rytas reached the ULEB Cup semifinals after a dramatic comeback in the second half against Greek team PAOK and remains the only Baltic basketball team with a chance of winning a European competition in 2005.
Latvian side BK Ventspils lost in the ULEB Cup quarterfinals (comparable to soccer's UEFA Cup) and Zalgiris Kaunas lost in Euroleague by the margin of just one point. Zalgiris lost three games in the top 16 phase and must win all its remaining games to keep its playoff dreams alive by finishing second in its group.
PAOK won the first leg in Saloniki against Lietuvos Rytas by the narrow margin of three points (74-71) and the Greek team played an impressive first half at Vilnius' Siemens Arena on Mar. 8, which resulted in a comfortable 40-28 lead.
But Zalgiris' head coach Tomo Mahoric obviously found the right words during half time because Lietuvos Rytas came back strongly.
"The coach emphasized that scoring would not be a problem if we played a hard defense," explained forward Tyrone Nesby. Nesby's three-pointers helped the team to fight back and Lietuvos Rytas went into the last quarter at 49-50.
After free throws by Andrius Slezas, Nesby initiated the game's decisive run and PAOK could not fight back. Rytas gave a stunning defensive performance and conceded only 15 points in the last quarter, resulting in a 76-65 aggregate victory.
Mahoric congratulated his players and praised "those wonderful 11,000 people in the gym. The crowd really stands behind us."
Fans in the Lithuanian capital are already counting down the days until Lietuvos Rytas plays Pamesa Valenica in the semifinals. The first leg takes place in Spain on Mar. 22 and the second leg in Vilnius on March 29. Home advantage should help Lieutovs Rytas reach the ULEB Cup final, which will be held in Charleroi, Belgium, on Apr. 19.
If the Lithuanians do make it through to the final, they will be competing against either Macedonikos (Greece) or KK Hemofarm (Serbia), which triumphed over BK Ventspils. Hemofarm won the first leg by a margin of six points (99-93), and saw the margin reduced to five points in the return game in Latvia. Just seconds before the final buzzer Vonteego Cummings scored two free throws to help win the game 77-82 and Ventspils was out of the competition.
Mike Lenzly (18 points), Brindley Wright (17 points) and Kestutis Sestokas (14 points) were top scorers for the Latvians.
"Today it was a game of two equal opponents and the winner was determined by small details," mused Karlis Muiznieks, Ventspils' head coach.
Now Ventspils will have to concentrate its efforts on the Baltic Basketball League, in which it lost its last game against Lietuvos Rytas (81-88).
The newly-created BBL is being dominated by Zalgiris Kaunas which is still undefeated after 13 games. The club comfortably beat Ehitustooriist (92-69) on March 13.
But the team would probably have been happy to lose a game or two in the BBL if only it could have scored two more points against Climamio Bologna on Mar. 9.
The Italians won 82-81 in Kaunas because Tanoka Beard missed a left-handed lay-up in the last seconds of the game for Zalgiris.
But head coach Antanas Sireika insisted after that the miss was not the reason for the defeat. "Zalgiris played perfectly in the last seconds, but we had bad luck," he said.
The match against the Italians was all-important because Zalgiris lost earlier games against Greece's Panathinaikos (73-84) and Spain's Tau Ceramica. The Spanish team thrashed Zalgiris 100-69 and it was a Lithuanian who was most responsible.
Arvydas Macijauskas, who played for Lietuvas Rytas until 2003, didn't miss a shot in the first quarter and scored 18 points.
After just 10 minutes Tau was leading 37-17, setting a new Euroleague record for the side. No other team has scored that many points in a single quarter.
The next challenges for Zalgiris in the BBL are games against Lietuvos Rytas on Mar. 26 and BK Ventspils on Apr. 2.
Lietuvos Rytas easily won at home against Neptunas (94-69) on March 12 to stay in second place with 10 victories and three defeats. Latvian team Valmieras Piens (3-10) and Estonian side TU/Rock are at the bottom of the table and will not take part in the playoffs that begin in the mid-April.