Defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv battled through to the Final Four of this season's Euroleague competition with a 77-73 victory over Olympiacos in their do-or-die decider at the Nokia Arena in Yad Eliyahu last night.
In its bid to become the first team in a generation to win three straight Euroleague titles, Maccabi now travels to the Final Four in Prague at the end of the month for a semifinal clash with Tau Ceramica. Maccabi beat Tau in last year's final.
Will Solomon led five double-figure scorers for Maccabi with 18 points, while Nikola Vujcic scored eight of his 10 points down the stretch. Anthony Parker chipped in with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
"I said before the game that it would be difficult," Maccabi coach Pini Gershon commented after last night's clash. "It was clear that it was going to end with a small margin... We have the Final Four in two weeks' time, and it is not going to be easy."
Maccabi top scorer Solomon: "It is very sweet. The crowd was fantastic, and the team was great tonight. We were a little slow at the start, but it is a great feeling now to get to the Final Four... Now we have to be focused to achieve the next objective - the cup."
Derrick Sharp, who started in place of Tal Burstein last night, was exhausted at the final buzzer. "It was one of out toughest games this season," he said. "It is difficult for us every year, but this year has been the toughest. It is hard for me to be happy because I am mentally exhausted."
Sharon Sasson had words of praise for both Olympiacos and the home fans. "At first, I didn't think it would be such a tough series," he said. "Olympiacos deserves much respect for not breaking. We have the best squad there is and I hope we go all the way. Our fans were the best you can possibly get."
Last night's game was a tight affair from the tip off, with the first quarter ending 26-24 in favor of the host, and the teams going into the half-time break with Maccabi wo points ahead at 44-42.
Maccabi began the third quarter well, and surged into its biggest lead of the night at 55-45. Olympiacos, however, did not break, and fought back to close the gap to just two points, at 56-54. Parker then took control to keep Maccabi four points ahead at the end of the third period - 62-58.
The final period saw Vujcic come good for Maccabi, after Olympiacos had tied up the score at 65-65, and then moved into a 71-69 lead. Three free throws from Vujcic restored the home team's lead with three minutes on the clock.
With 24 seconds to go, Sharp made two free throws to give Maccabi a 76-73 lead, and Olympiacos was unable to come back. One of two free throws from Vujcic rounded off the scoring at 77-73 to the defending champion.
In last night's other quarterfinals, Barcelona defeated Real Madrid in their series decider to set up a semifinal clash in Prague with CSKA Moscow.
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