Maccabi Tel Aviv outplayed Lithuanian champion Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius for much of Thursday night’s EuroLeague encounter but almost slipped up in the dying minutes, only to wrestle back the lead for a 76-74 victory.
Maccabi has endured a terrible start to the season, losing three of its first four games, but had shown signs of improvement recently with two excellent wins in the Israeli Premier League while giving some of its deep bench a chance to prove themselves.
Coach David Blatt recalled Devin Smith, who has missed the past few games through injury, to his opening five for the game against a team the Yellows had never beaten in their four previous meetings.
Maccabi raced to a nine-point lead with two three-pointers from Ricky Hickman and another from Australian forward Joe Ingles, but took its foot off the gas, only for Greek center Sofoklis Schortsanitis to add two baskets at the end of the first quarter for a 26-18 lead.
The second quarter was a slow affair, until Yogev Ohayon and David Blu’s three-pointers and the marauding Schortsanitis – who was causing the Lithuanian defense all sorts of trouble – gave the visitors a 12-point cushion, 45-33, at the halfway point.
But the Lithuanians gnawed away at Maccabi’s lead in the third quarter with a 16-4 run that featured a tremendous three-pointer from Omar Cook and impressive baskets from Milenko Tepic and Renaldas Seibutis to cut the lead to six points.
Maccabi’s players appeared to lose their heads in the fourth period, repeatedly giving the ball away needlessly as Martynas Gecevicius scored five consecutive points for the home team to lead - for the first time in the game - at 71-70, five minutes from the final buzzer.
As the tense, mistake-ridden final minutes wore on, Smith and Hickman restored Maccabi’s lead, only for Gecevicius to shoot a remarkable three-pointer to regain parity at 74-74.
But the Yellows' final offensive move of the game resulted in the winning basket, as Shawn James shot and missed, only to take the rebound and pass to Tyrese Rice, who planted the ball with aplomb with only 3.6 seconds left on the clock.
Smith was Maccabi’s leading scorer with 18 points, followed by Hickman's 11.
“In the first 25 minutes we played team basketball at a very high level, but in the last 15 minutes we almost threw it away,” Blatt said after the game. “We gave away too many balls and were inferior on the rebound. It’s not easy playing in Vilnius with their fans, but we held on for an important away win that will put us in good stead. I’m particularly happy for Tyrese [Rice], who did some great work toward the end of the game and helped us win.”
Maccabi is now 3-1 in EuroLeague play.