By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Euroleague debutants Nizhny Novgorod and 1999 champions Zalgiris Kaunas booked the last two berths in the competition’s second group stage on Friday.
Nizhny overpowered more fancied fellow Russians Unics Kazan 78-74 thanks to an outstanding performance by forward Tarence Kinsey and Zalgiris progressed after a dramatic 80-79 defeat of Italians Dinamo Sassari.
Unics led for three quarters after a 23-4 run midway through the first half had put them in the driving seat but Nizhny produced a furious final period in which Kinsey and playmaker Dimitriy Khvostov nailed a barrage of three-pointers.
Kinsey led the winners with 23 points and six rebounds, his American compatriot Trey Thompkins scored 17 points and Khvostov added 10 in front of a fervent home crowd.
Versatile shooting guard Keith Langford stood out for Unics with 24 points but the home team’s aggressive defense ground his team mates to a halt in the fourth quarter.
“I said at halftime we had to stick to the game plan, come out and make some adjustments,” a delighted Kinsey told Euroleague television.
“I expect nothing but the best now and to make the playoffs. Nothing is impossible and we have to dream big.”
Zalgiris booked their passage into the Top 16, featuring two groups of eight teams, with a dramatic last-gasp comeback after controlling much of the game and spilling a 10-point lead.
Trailing 77-70 with two minutes left, the Lithuanians forced a final twist after forward James Anderson scored the last three points of the game with an off-balance shot followed by a free throw as he was fouled on the drive.
“We built a good lead in the first half and lost our momentum in the second, but we dug deep and fought our way back thanks to a great team spirit,” said former NBA journeyman Anderson, who finished with a game-high 26 points.
The Top 16 will be played from Dec. 30 to April 10 and the top four teams from each section will advance to the best-of-five quarter-final playoff series.
The winners qualify for the May 15-17 Final Four in Madrid.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; editing by Justin Palmer)