February 25, 2010

Red Claws avoid stunning collapse

— BY ZACH EWING

Special to the Press-Herald

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Alexis Ajinca knew the shot counted, because the ball left his fingertip before the buzzer sounded.

Tony Bobbitt knew it counted, and he told everyone so as he skipped off the court Sunday evening at the Jam Events Center.

''Let's get out of here,'' he said.

And both players knew what Ajinca's buzzer-beating tip-in meant -- that the Maine Red Claws had halted a furious comeback by the Bakersfield Jam, snapping a three-game losing streak with a 106-104 victory.

''We needed this one,'' Maine Coach Austin Ainge said. ''It would have been really heart-breaking to lose after leading and really outplaying them most of the game.''

Bobbitt's line was particularly appropriate because Maine (14-9) really did have to escape Bakersfield. The Red Claws controlled the game throughout and led by as many as 17 points early in the fourth quarter against a team that's just 5-19.

But two 3-pointers by Reece Gaines pulled Bakersfield within six, and a 3 by a heavily guarded Brian Butch with 33 seconds left made it a two-point game. On the Red Claws' next possession, Jeremy Wise stole the ball and streaked downcourt for a dunk that tied the game at 104 with 19 seconds left.

''They were kind of playing with reckless abandon, and they hit tough 3s,'' Ainge said. ''It was kind of that backs-against-the-wall play, loose and free. ... And then, I think our guys kind of panicked there at the end. We tried to give it away.''

On the final play, Will Blalock lost the ball on his way to the hoop, then recovered, but his shot was off. Ajinca saved the day with a tip from the left side as time expired.

''I just tried to follow the ball,'' Ajinca said. ''That was the last play, so you follow the ball. It came to my side, so I was lucky. And it won the game. It's pretty cool.''

There was momentary confusion as to whether the shot counted, but both teams left the court before the officials even checked the replay monitors.

Before his heroics, Ajinca was already having a big day. He finished 12 of 14 from the floor for 27 points and added 10 rebounds despite first-half foul trouble.

The Red Claws lost J.R. Giddens in the first quarter with what Ainge called a sprained knee. Giddens scored 23 points in each of his first two D-League games since being assigned from the Boston Celtics, but he had just four points in seven minutes Sunday before watching the rest of the game from the sideline with his knee wrapped.

''We missed him,'' Ainge said. ''We missed his defense and his energy and his scoring.''

Maine benefitted from a big advantage in rebounding, 55-34. The Red Claws are 15th of 16 D-League teams in offensive rebounding, but they had a 24-6 edge in second-chance points.

''We've been working on it,'' Ajinca said. ''The last couple games, (teams) have kicked our (rear) on the rebounds. But that's what we did tonight, offensive rebounds. And I think that was the key of the game.''

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