MOSCOW - Three years of preparations and a near-perfect season came crashing to an end for CSKA Moscow on Friday evening in the Olympiysky Arena in the Russian capital. CSKA, playing its worst game of a memorable season, frittered away a $35 million budget and allowed Tau Vitoria - a Basque team with plenty of fighting spirit, skill and unending physical fitness - to make it through to the championship game of the 2005 Euroleague Final Four.
CSKA's European dream came to an end for two main reasons: an awful day of foul throws (just 10 successful shots from 28 for a pitiful 36 percent), and some controversial decisions by coach Dusan Ivkovic.
Two days after declaring that he saw Theo Papaloukas as the key to victory, Ivkovic handed the reins to J.R. Holden, who may have scored 20 points, but made CSKA's usually effective team game impossible.
By giving Holden 35 minutes on the court, and just 13 minutes to Papaloukas, Ivkovic sealed CSKA's fate - despite the desperate attempts of Greek referee and his Turkish colleague to revive a rapidly fading CSKA challenge.
Just as he had throughout the season, Holden was only looking to pass to his close friend Marcus Brown, but Brown was finding the going hard in offense, and failed completely to guard the wonderful Arvydas Macijauskas, who amassed 23 points.
David Anderson proved himself to be a useful player, but was too soft in dealing with Luis Scola. The rest of CSKA's big players turned in unsophisticated performances, failing to change their style of play to suit the developments during the game.
Tau, so ably coached by Dusko Ivanovic, started the game in relaxed and confident mood. Macijauskas ended the first quarter with 9 points and not a single miss, and by the seventh minute, the Basques enjoyed an 11-point margin (21-10). SKA brought Papaloukas off the bench, with Brown sent to rest, and the deficit was cut to eight points (25-17) by the end of the quarter.
Holden sank two three-pointers and, after another long-range effort from Sergey Monya, CSKA took the lead for the first time in the encounter on the back of an 11-0 run (28-27).
Some refereeing decisions that favored the home team meant that Tau's big players (Scola, Andrew Betts and Tiago Splitter) picked up early fouls, but some intelligent play from center Sergi Vidal ensured that the Spaniards regained the lead at the end of the first half (47-40).
After the interval, the referees gave Scola and Kornel David their fourth foul apiece, and CSKA once again almost managed to wipe out an 11-point deficit - from 51-40 to 60-59 at the end of the third quarter.
The vast majority of those present were entirely convinced that CSKA, which had by now switched to a zonal defense, would quickly leave Tau in its wake, but every member of Ivkovic's team seemed to be trembling every time they had the ball in their hands.
Antonio Granger, whom CSKA acquired from Efes Pilsen with such fanfare, was given 90 seconds of play, did more damage than good, and was taken straight off. A massive three-pointer from Pablo Prigioni, three minutes from the end, sent a sense of imminent sensation around the arena, as Tau took a 68-62 lead.
One minute later, Macijauskas scored five unanswered points to stretch the Spanish team's lead to 73-64. By this time the referees had fouled out all three of Tau's big players, but the game was over. Against all the odds, Tau won 85-78, setting up a clash between the two best teams in the Euroleague in tonight's championship match.
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