By Zoran Milosavljevic
MADRID, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Euroleague favourites Barcelona moved a step closer to the playoffs halfway through the second group stage of the competition after Croatia centre Ante Tomic shone in a 82-77 win at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The result left 2010 winners Barca at the top of their group with a 6-1 record and poised to reach the best-of-five quarter-final playoff series, whose winners will advance to the May 10-12 Final Four in London.
The Catalan club's fans had even more to cheer about on Thursday after Anadolu Efes Istanbul edged Barcelona's traditional Spanish rivals Real Madrid 74-72 to go joint top with Madrid in the other group.
The top 16 stage features two pools of eight teams playing each other home away on a round-robin basis.
Holders Olympiakos Piraeus boosted their hopes of advancing into the last eight with an 87-82 win at Khimki Moscow on Friday thanks to a furious finish as playmaker Vassilis Spanoulis and centre Kyle Hines rifled in 19 points each.
A strong third quarter in Tel Aviv's jam-packed Nokia Arena gave Barcelona a 67-53 lead heading into the final period, when they survived a late onslaught from the hosts and came out on top after 18 points from Tomic, who joined Barca from Real during the close season.
Veteran guards Juan Carlos Navarro and Sarunas Jasikevicius chipped in with 14 points apiece for Barca, netting a pair of three-pointers each to cancel out a valiant solo effort by Maccabi forward Ricky Hickman, who amassed 19 points.
The victory put the icing on the cake for Barca after winning the Spanish Cup on Sunday and while their coach Xavier Pascual acknowledged its importance, he also heaped praise on the atmosphere in Tel Aviv.
"It is always a pleasure to come back to this place because the Nokia Arena is a great venue and Maccabi also has great fans," he told the competition's official website (www.euroleague.net).
"It was a tough game for us and one not easy to focus on after winning the Copa Del Rey last weekend. We were not at our best in the first half but improved in the second and are very happy with this win."
Maccabi, on the other hand, have a mountain to climb after slipping to a 2-5 record and their coach David Blatt, who steered Russia to the 2007 European Championship, was not optimistic about his team's chances.
"We are in a difficult situation now. We need five more wins and I am not sure where we are going to get them," he said.
"Our season isn't over though, we still have a chance and as long as we've got one we will keep fighting."
Six-time winners CSKA Moscow bounced back from two successive defeats with an 86-69 home win over Panathinaikos Athens, who also have six titles, after Serbia playmaker Milos Teodosic produced a telling performance with 20 points and seven assists.
The inconsistent point guard was at his best this time as he nailed four three-pointers from six attempts, some of which created open shots for former Toronto Raptors forward Sonny Weems and Russia centre Sasha Kaun, who scored 19 and 13 points respectively.
"After losses to Unicaja Malaga and Real Madrid we played a really good game following an excellent week of practice, probably the best week this season, so I am happy for my team," CSKA's Italian coach Ettore Messina said.
"Kaun was like Bill Russel under the basket tonight, he had 10 deflections and that's not including the five blocked shots," he said referring to the former NBA centre who won a record 11 titles with the Boston Celtics from 1956-69.
CSKA boosted their chances of reaching the last eight after improving to a 5-2 record behind Efes and Real, ahead of Panathinaikos who have four wins and three defeats and Zalgiris Kaunas breathing down their necks after a dramatic 88-87 overtime win at Brose Baskets Bamberg.
The Lithuanians, who won Europe's premier club competition in 1999, moved up to 3-4 after Croatia guard Marko Popovic showed steely composure to bury three free-throws on the buzzer after he was fouled while taking a desperate, last-gasp shot from behind the arc.
"Now we have this monkey off our back after one-point losses at Panathinaikos and Madrid as well as a four-point defeat at Efes, we worked hard and finally enjoyed a close win," said. Zalgiris coach Joan Plaza.
Unicaja Malaga also kept alive their hopes of progressing to the knockout stages with a laboured 67-65 win at Alba Berlin. (Editing by Mark Meadows; [email protected]; +44 20 7542 7933; Reuters Messaging:; [email protected])