By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Euroleague holders Real Madrid are staring at an early exit after a dramatic 94-88 defeat at Red Star Belgrade while six of their rivals reached the competition’s second group stage with three games to spare on Friday.
Spanish contenders Barcelona and Unicaja Malaga, Russians CSKA Moscow and Lokomotiv Krasnodar as well as Fenerbahce Istanbul and Olympiakos Piraeus all progressed to the Top 16, featuring two groups of eight teams.
Real's setback at Red Star left them with a 2-5 record and facing an uphill battle to stay in the hunt for a record-extending 10th title, after the hosts swung the absorbing contest their way in front of a fervent 7,000 crowd.
“These are the best basketball fans in the world and I just love how they got behind us tonight,” Red Star’s American forward Quincy Miller told Reuters after a standing ovation.
“We played tough defense when we had to and this win will have boosted our confidence ahead of the last three games,” added the 23-year old from Chicago, having racked up 24 points and seven rebounds.
Red Star's German center Maik Zirbes, the game’s top scorer with 26 points, added: “It’s a great accomplishment but our chances of advancing are still in the balance and we have to keep up the good work.”
A roller coaster affair, played in the cauldron of the acoustic Pionir Hall, saw Red Star throw away a 12-point lead midway through the first half and then overcome a 10-point deficit in the third quarter.
Miller was instrumental in the win by nailing five three-pointers from seven attempts to galvanize the fans and Zirbes was ice cool from the free throw line in the home straight.
Having the 24-team competition’s most porous defense after conceding 84.8 points per game in their opening six matches, Real again allowed their rivals too many open shots.
Spain did have something to cheer as Barcelona buried 17 of 26 three-point attempts in a 93-64 away rout of Poles Zielona Gora, while Unicaja brushed aside Maccabi Tel Aviv 82-68.
Maccabi, with five titles, have only a theoretical chance of progressing after slipping to their sixth defeat in seven games.
CSKA edged Dinamo Sassari 93-87 while Zalgiris Kaunas, the 1999 winners, were also humbled by a Russian side after registering their lowest Euroleague tally in an 80-50 drubbing at the hands of irrepressible Lokomotiv.
Usually lethal from long range, Zalgiris hit only two of their 11 three-point attempts as the Russian side's steely defense stifled the Lithuanian outfit.
Fenerbahce eased to an 81-64 home win over Strasbourg, Czech center Jan Vesely taking 20 points for the Turks, and Olympiakos overpowered Laboral Kutxa Vitoria 59-52 in a physical contest.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ken Ferris)