By Zoran Milsovljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Former double Euroleague winners Barcelona reached the competition's second group stage, the Top 16, with three games to spare after a 94-81 home win over already-qualified Fenerbahce Istanbul on Friday.
They were joined by six-time champions CSKA Moscow, who beat Budivelnik Kiev 82-74, and fellow Russians Lokomotiv Kuban as the top flight debutants romped to an 84-53 rout of Lithuanians Lietuvos Rytas.
Thursday's success in Vilnius was followed by more good news for Lokomotiv with coach Evgeny Pashutin on Friday also taking over the Russia team from Vasily Karasev, whose four-month spell ended in an early exit at September's European Championship.
Maccabi Tel Aviv, winners of four Euroleague titles, edged Red Star Belgrade 78-76 before 8,000 passionate Serbian fans, while holders Olympiakos Piraeus and Real Madrid, who booked Top 16 tickets last week, took their perfect starts to seven wins.
Barca ended Fenerbahce's unbeaten run after a furious start gave them a 52-28 lead shortly before the break and, although the visitors later got within four points, a game-high 23 points from forward Bostjan Nachbar steered the home side to victory.
CSKA, in contrast, forced Budivelnik into submission with a strong final quarter after the Ukrainian newcomers held their own for 30 minutes and threatened an upset on the back of 21 points from Blake Ahearn and 16 by new signing Daequan Cook.
Cook, a former Miami Heat and Oklahoma Thunder guard who joined Budivelnik on Saturday, combined well with Ahearn but the more heralded visitors won with a balanced team effort, forward Kyle Hines leading the way on 18 points and six rebounds.
"My players showed good energy at crunch time and that was very important," CSKA's Italian coach Ettore Messina told the competition's official website (www.euroleague.net).
"Unfortunately, we are still not playing the entire 40 minutes in a constant rhythm but our chemistry and mutual understanding has improved although we allowed too many uncontested shots today."
Maccabi appeared to be coasting in Belgrade's packed Pionir Arena after taking an 18-point lead against Red Star early in the final period, but they had to hang on after a fierce onslaught by the hosts nearly turned the match on its head.
Trailing 77-76 in the dying seconds, Red Star had possession but their guard DeMarcus Nelson missed a sitter and David Blu buried one of two free throws at the other end to silence the frenetic crowd.
Towering Greek center Sofoklis Schortsanitis led Maccabi's charge with 22 points in 16 minutes on court, nailing nine of 10 shots from the field as Red Star's Boban Marjanovic and Rasko Katic had no reply for his raw strength and size.
"It was the kind of game you'd expect in a place like this, where the fans create a magnificent atmosphere," Schortsanitis, who is 2.06 metres tall and weighs 159 kilograms, told Reuters.
"It was a close game and I really enjoyed it because my team mates helped a lot by passing the ball to me whenever I was open.
"We have to take it one step at a time from here on and our primary goal remains to reach the Top 16, but I believe we can do a lot of damage in the Euroleague this season if we keep up the good work," he said.
Olympiakos, aiming for a third straight title after beating Real Madrid in last season's final at London's O2 Arena and CSKA in Istanbul in 2012, eased past Galatasaray 72-54 at home.
Real, gunning for a record ninth title in Europe's premier club competition to match their football club, strolled to an 89-69 win over German side Bamberg thanks to 20 points from Montenegrin-born forward Nikola Mirotic.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)