Early departure for Sharks

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The Independent Online

Sheffield Sharks' dream of squaring up to the NBA's Houston Rockets died in the first round of the McDonald's Championship at London Arena last night, when they lost 71-99 to Spain's Real Madrid.

Madrid, who knocked Sheffield out of the European Championship earlier this month, out-rebounded the Sharks 30-12 in the first half and quickly turned their 41-29 interval lead into a 20-point advantage.

Madrid meet Bologna in the first of tonight's semi-finals after the Italian champions defeated the Israelis Maccabi Tel Aviv 112-103 in the first game. Bologna's American Orlando Wooldridge scored 30 points and took 11 rebounds in the Italian champions' victory over Israel's top team.

Hakeem Olajuwon, the Houston Rockets' 7ft 2in centre who features on the front cover of the event programme and was billed as the star attraction, will not risk his injured elbow in the second of tonight's semi-finals, against the Australian champions, Perth Wildcats. "I don't think it would be wise to play," he said. "I don't want to risk turning a minor injury into a major injury. I will train with the team and get ready for the season, that's what matters."

No NBA team has ever lost in Europe and their clubs have won the six previous McDonald's Championships. But the recent lock-out which prevented pre-season training, plus Olajuwon's absence, has left them slightly edgy. Houston's Sam Cassell said: "We know that no NBA team has ever lost in Europe and we don't want to be the first. Let somebody else be the first, not us."

After practice yesterday, the Rockets' coach, Rudy Tomjanovich, said: "It was very important for us to have a good practice today to iron out a few of the kinks. We were very rusty and it was ugly out there for a while, but we ended on a pretty good note."