Lietuvos Rytas edging AEK Athens 86-80
Lietuvos Rytas became the Group A champion and entered the ULEB Cup elimination rounds draw as one of the four top-seeded teams by edging AEK Athens 86-80 in Vilnius, Lithuania in front of a sellout crowd of 11,000 fans at Siemens Arena on Tuesday. L. Rytas finished Group A tied for first place with Nancy, both with 7-3 records. Tie-break procedures applied and L. Rytas finished first due its 2-0 head-to-head record against Nancy during the regular season. Meanwhile, AEK finished sixth with a 2-8 record. Matt Nielsen and Kareem Rush paced the winners each with 17 points. Nielsen shot perfectly, making 7 of 7 two-pointers and 3 of 3 free throws, while Rush buried 4 of his 5 shots from downtown. Artutas Jomantas added 10 points while Janis Blums dished 11 assists for L. Rytas. Christos Tapoutos had 20 points for AEK, Nestoras Kommatos added 19, Nikos Vetoulas 18 and Prodomos Nikolaidis 15. L. Rytas rolled in the opening three quarters, leading 52-31 at halftime and boosting its margin to 81-56 with 7 minutes to go. Tapoutos and Kommatos fueled a 2-21 run that gave AEK some hope at 83-77 with 2 minutes to go, but the guests ran out of time to complete the rally.
L. Rytas got the first rebound and their first points as well as Mindaugas Lukauskis drove for an easy layup. Joao Paolo Batista also scored in the paint after Prodromos Nikolaidis dropped a triple for AEK. The visitors used long possessions to control the pace but were ineffective as L. Rytas ran a pair of fastbreaks and scored easily. Nikolaidis hit his second shot from downtown but Nielsen answered with free throws and a semi-hook off a nice dish by Blums. Jomantas ended a cozy 6-0 run as L. Rytas safely led 13-6 midway through the first quarter. Kommatos tried to initiate a comeback with 4 consecutive points for the visitors but Blums and fresh-off-the-bench Kareem Rush exploded with back-to-back triples and boosted the margin even higher, to 19-10. Rush added a driving layup but Kommatos and Nikolaos Vetoulas combined for 5 points and reduced the L. Rytas lead to 21-15. Blums landed another bomb from behind the arc to start the last minute of the quarter. It ended with Marijonas Petravicius slamming the ball for a 26-15 score after 10 minutes. Vetoulas started the second quarter with a triple for AEK, but so did Andrius Slezas for L. Rytas, which turned now to full-court pressure and fast offensive plays. The strategy worked as Rush downed a triple and Slezas added a fastbreak layup. AEK looked frustrated as the L. Rytas lead reached 16 points, 34-18. Kommatos responded with a hook and Spyridon Magkounis added free throws but Blums matched them with his third three-pointer. Vetoulas dropped a triple too, but Eurelijus Zukauskas and Slezas combined for 5 points to rebuild the lead to 41-25. Jomantas stole and penetrated for an easy bucket as both teams started to play faster and exchange baskets, though the margin didn't change. L. Rytas still led by 18 points, 47-29, as Rush dropped his third triple after a timeout. Jomantas made free throws as L. Rytas coasted into the break ahead by 52-31.
Nielsen opened the third quarter with 4 consecutive points before Jomantas converted his third steal to boost the lead to 58-33. Vetoulas stepped up for AEK with a triple but Nielsen almost broke the rim with a massive dunk on another attack. L. Rytas worked hard on the defensive end and didn't allow easy shots for AEK. The offense benefitted as Batista converted a three-point play and an easy layup to make it 65-38 after 25 minutes. Tapoutos responded with 4 points and Vetoulas added a triple but Petravicius hit consecutive jumpers and Rush landed his fourth strike from downtown. Tapoutos and Constantinos Maglos kept scoring to reduce the difference to 76-55 after three quarters. Blums dished his 10th assist to Nielsen for a bucket that opened the final quarter. The pair repeated the combination after a minute or so, but this time with a foul, which Nielsen converted for an 81-56 score. AEK didn't give up. Instead, Kommatos scored from downtown, Nikolaidis added free throws and Tapoutos hit a triple in a stunning 0-13 run that cut the margin rather suddenly to 81-69 with 5 minutes left. Tomas Delininkaitis ended 5 scoreless minutes for L. Rytas with a fastbreak layup but Kommatos answered with free throws and back-to-back triples that kept AEK surging at 83-77. The hosts looked confused but escaped as Rush hit an important free throw and added a decisive layup for an 86-77 lead with 42 seconds left, enough for L. Rytas to claim first place in Group A and preserve its unbeaten record at home.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007