* It took the most amazing circumstances, referred to by some as a "miracle," to keep former Tar Heels star Ed Cota and his Zalgiris Kaunas (Lithuania) team from closing out a 94-89 lead with 10 seconds to play against Maccabi in Tel Aviv, Israel last Thursday, with the winner moving on to the Euroleague's Final Four.
After Maccabi scored a basket with three seconds to go and pull within three at 94-91, "Zalgiris inbounded the ball to Geidrius Gustas instead of Ed Cota, who had iced all 12 free throws he took in the game, including six in the last minute. Maccabi's Lithuanian point guard Saras Jasikevicius (Maryland '98) [with 37 points] quickly fouled Gustas, who wasn't a bad choice to hold the ball for Kaunas, considering that he was 17-for-17 from the line in Euroleague games this year going into Thursday, and made one of two he took earlier. But with just two seconds left, Gustas missed both shots. Then Tanoka Beard [of Zalgiris] was whistled for a lane violation, supposedly going into the lane before Gustas took his second shot," the Jerusalem Post reported. The call wiped out Beard's rebound and put-back basket and kept Maccabi alive, but still down three with two seconds on the clock.
A long inbound pass went to just beyond the top of the key. After the catch, a turn and a dribble, a hurried, off-balance heave for three by Derrick Sharp (South Florida '93), noted as a defensive specialist, found the net at the buzzer to send the game to overtime at 94-94. Maccabi then dominated the OT to claim a 107-99 victory and qualify for the Euroleague Final Four that they will host beginning on April 29.
"You have just witnessed a miracle," Pini Gershon, Maccabi's coach, informed the press after his squad incredibly avoided the upset bid by visiting Zalgiris.
"It was definitely an unbelievable game. I could have never pictured anyone taking a loss like this one," Zalgiris point guard Ed Cota told Inside Carolina via e-mail after returning to Lithuania following the stunning loss his team suffered in Tel Aviv. "It was very devastating. I never thought that I would experience a defeat that was worse than my last game at Carolina, however this loss put things in perspective. Now I know that things can get worse, but I also realize that things can get better."
The Jerusalem Post's game report noted that, "Ed Cota played standout basketball all night and made six free throws in the final minute. He added 20 points and seven assists for the visitors." Cota also played 44:15 of the game's 45 minutes, shot 3-9 overall from the field (2-4 on threes), grabbed five rebounds and was a perfect 12-12 from the line.
TALKING HOOPS WITH ED COTA
* Before leaving for Israel last week, Ed Cota responded to some questions from Inside Carolina. Here's IC's Q&A with Ed C. ...
Inside Carolina: So, how is life in Kaunas, Lithuania and traveling around the world on the Euroleague circuit to Turkey, Russia, Israel, Spain and Italy?
Ed Cota -- "I was very lucky to travel the states while playing for Carolina. Now, I am lucky to travel around Europe. It is great to be able to experience the different European cultures. Life in Kaunas is good. The winter weather can be extremely harsh. Having my fiancee here with me makes life a lot easier."
IC: Where does your team's name, Zalgiris, come from?
Cota -- "Zalgiris was the name of a battle in which the Lithuanians defeated the Germans. The name represents strength and mighty warriors."
IC: What do you miss the most from home during your time spent overseas?
Cota -- "Family, friends, food, and television."
IC: What is it like being on the court with Lithuanian legend Arvydas Sabonis?
Cota -- "It is an honor playing with a guy like Sabonis. He was a great player in his time, but now it is a little difficult at times because the team has to play at a slow pace. He definitely helps the team, though."
IC: Who is the better passer, Cota or Sabonis?
Cota -- "Sabonis is a good passer, but I haven't seen one better than myself (smiles). However, I do consider Jason Kidd and I to be on the same level. (smiles, again)"
IC: How would you compare the Euroleague to the NBA?
Cota -- "The Euroleague is more like college basketball because teams run zone defense and teams run plays where the whole five players are involved. The are a lot of quick sets in the NBA, and in Euroleague there is more thinking involved. The Euroleague is slower than the NBA. The NBA has better athletes, but the Euroleague has smarter players and better shooters."
IC: Does the rivalry in Lithuania between Zalgiris Kaunas and Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius remind you of the North Carolina-Duke rivalry?
Cota -- "Yes, somewhat. The fans really get up for this game. If you like Rytas, then you hate Zalgiris and vice versa. And it's always a great atmosphere during the games."
IC: What would you think about a chance to play for the Charlotte Bobcats?
Cota -- "That would be the chance of a lifetime for me. I would love the opportunity! I have had great success in basketball, but my dream is to play in the NBA. I still haven't been given the chance to prove that I can play on that level. This is something that really bothers me, but I continue to work hard, try to improve, and play for the love of the game."
IC: Have you been keeping up with UNC's season and the return to the Big Dance?
Cota -- "Yes, I keep up with them. They have had a lot of dissapointing losses this year which really comes as a surprise to me. They are a great team with a lot of talent, but they are still young. Hopefully they will learn from their mistakes and make improvements for next season."
Zalgiris Kaunas ended the LKL regular season with a league-best mark of 35-1 following Saturday's 93-75 win over Lietuvos Rytas (32-4). With first-place already clinched, Cota played only seven minutes to be rested for the LKL playoff quarterfinals starting on Thursday as Zalgiris defends the Lithuanian League championship.
WILLIAMS ONE WIN FROM TITLE
* Things have calmed down a little for Donald Williams over in Sweden since his three-quarter court game-winning buzzer-beater gave Plannja Basket a 94-91 win in game one of the Swedish League's championship series.
In game two last Tuesday, Williams scored 13 (6-10 FG, 1-2 FT) as Norrkoping won 114-101 to tie the series 1-1. In Thursday's game three, Williams shot poorly (3-15 FG, 1-5 3-pt. FG) and scored just 10, but held Norrkoping's high-scoring Gee Gervin (Houston) to 12 points on 5-14 from the field as Brent Wright (Florida) carried the load for Plannja with 29 points and 18 boards in a 113-77 win to take a 3-1 lead.
Yesterday in game four, Donald Williams struggled again with his shooting -- 2-of-14 FG attempts -- on his way to six points and three assists. But Brent Wright (Florida) dominated with 33 points (12-18 FG, 9-10 FT) and 14 rebounds as Plannja Basket went to 3-1 with an 89-82 victory.
Game five is Wednesday (4/14) on Plannja's home court, Coop Arena, in Lulea, Sweden. If necessary, game six is scheduled for Friday (4/16) and a seventh game would be played on Sunday (4/18) back in Lulea.
To view Donald Williams' incredible game-winning buzzer-beater in the series opener, CLICK HERE and fast forward to about the 4:30 mark on the clip.
LANG, ASHEVILLE TAKE NBDL TOP SPOT
* Asheville's "Kris Lang stuffed the stat sheet with a double-double of his own, posting 10 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks, three assists and two steals," according to the the NBDL press release after Asheville claimed the NBDL's regular season title at 28-18 with a 122-113 win over Fayetteville (21-25) on Saturday. Jason Capel scored 27 points (9-16 FG, 7-8 FT) and added seven rebounds and five assists for Fayetteville.
Lang finished the season as the NBDL's leader in Field Goal Accuracy at 61.3 percent (206-336), sixth-best in Blocks at 1.4 per game and as All-NBDL Honorable Mention.
Capel was fifth in Free Throw Accuracy at 82.9 percent (107-129) in 2003-04 after leading the NBDL in that category last season when he shot 88.5 percent from the line.
The NBDL playoffs begin on Saturday (4/17) in a four-team single-elimination format. Top-seeded Asheville will host fourth-place Fayetteville. The winner will be in the NBDL championship game on April 24 or 25.
SUTTON A PRE-DRAFT PROSPECT
* North Carolina senior center Candace Sutton attended the WNBA's two-day Pre-Draft Camp in Tarrytown, New York last week to put her skills on display for scouts, coaches and GMs. Sutton will find out more about her professional basketball future during the WNBA Draft on Saturday (4/17).
The 2004 WNBA Draft consists of 13 teams selecting for three rounds. ESPN will have coverage of the first round beginning at Noon (ET) on Saturday from Secaucus, New Jersey.
From 2000 through 2004, the 6-6 Sutton played 126 games for the women Tar Heels and compiled 1,330 points (10.6 pg), 755 rebounds (6.0 pg) and 208 blocks (1.65 pg).