Tau Ceramica is back in the Final Four! Tau will fight for the Euroleague title again after an epic 71-74 victory over host Panathinaikos on Wednesday in front of a sellout crowd of 18,000 fans in Athens, Greece. Tau won the best-of-three series 2-1 with just the second road win in this year's Quarterfinals Playoffs round and in that way became the second team to reach the Final Four, joining CSKA. In Prague, Tau will face the quarterfinals winner between Maccabi and Olympiacos. Serkan Erdogan led the winners with 24 points. He had 13 in the second quarter to keep Tau ahead, 36-42, at halftime, and then hit 4 of 4 free throws in the final 50 seconds to seal the upset. Pablo Prigioni had 12 points, including a critical five-meter jumper with 17.6 seconds to go. Casey Jacobsen also had 12 points, Tiago Splitter added 11 while Luis Scola and Kornel David each grabbed 11 rebounds for Tau. Vassilis Spanoulis had 16 points, Mike Batiste added 14 while Jaka Lakovic and Fragiskos Alvertis each had 12 for the Greens, who trailed 14-26 early in the second quarter but rallied to get a 53-52 edge after 30 minutes. It happened to be their last lead of the game, as three-pointers by Travis Hansen, Jacobsen and Prigioni allowed Tau to keep a slim lead throughout the final period. Panathinaikos kept its chances alive until the final buzzer, when Alvertis missed an off-balance three-point shot that would have sent the game to overtime.
Panathinaikos got off to a good start thanks to Kostas Tsartsaris, who scored 4 quick points taking Scola one-on-one. Hansen was not equally effective for Tau, as he missed back-to-back jumpers inside and beyond the arc. Nothing changed for a while, however, as the hosts came up empty in several possessions. Three-pointers by Jacobsen and Prigioni ignited a 0-8 run which forced Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic to call the first timeout of the game. Lakovic finally broke the ice for the Greens with a confident jumper and a pair of free throws, yet Scola’s passionate play kept Tau in front, 8-11, after 6 minutes. Dejan Tomasevic and Alvertis entered the game while David replaced Scola. Panathinaikos kept struggling on defense, allowing consecutive layups from Prigioni and Jacobsen, enough for Tau to extend its lead to 9-15. David fired in a jumper but Spanoulis bettered him with a triple that brought the crowd to its feet. Still, the Greens could not get closer, however, as free throws by Prigioni and a layup by Erdogan allowed Tau to keep a 14-21 margin after 10 minutes.
Erdogan came out on fire in the second quarter and added 5 quick points on a big triple and free throws, widening the gap to double digits, 14-26. Alvertis hit one from the top of the key as Panathinaikos, backed by its boisterous crowd, was not willing to give up that easily. Spanoulis rescued the Greens with back-to-back layups, as Tau switched to zone defense. Spanoulis kept pacing Panathinaikos but Erdogan buried a huge triple in front of his defender, then followed it with a layup to keep Tau ahead, 25-33. Erdogan already had 12 points coming off the bench. Alvertis nailed his second three-pointer, igniting a 6-0 run that Tomasevic capped with a layup to cut the Tau lead to 31-33 after 16 minutes. The hosts chose to abandon the zone defense, as the game had turned into a physical battle in which no team was willing to surrender. Tau kept dominating the boards and when Erdogan drilled another triple, the guests had restored a 34-42 advantage. Mike Batiste hit a jump hook – his first field goal - with 13 seconds left, but Tau was still in front, 36-42, at halftime.
The second half started with Splitter muscling his way inside. Batiste answered with a post move but Splitter had the last say, as he converted a three-point play that boosted the guests' margin to 38-47. Spanoulis scored again and Alvertis fired in a triple that put OAKA's "factory of noise" in full production. The Greens kept playing their trademark intense man-to-man defense, as Tau struggled to score. Both teams were locked in a battle at 45-49 until Batiste stepped up with a put-back basket. Erdogan missed a triple and as the momentum was beginning to shift, Tau coach Velimir Perasovic called a timeout to fix his offense. Dimitris Diamantidis tied it, then Erdogan buried one from downtown but Alvertis knocked down one of his own to make it 52-52 with 90 seconds left in this period. With Erdogan as its only regular contributor, Tau kept having troubles on offense and it wasn't long before the hosts took the lead on a free throw by Tomasevic. Scola missed on yet another jump hook and the third quarter ended with Panathinaikos being in the driver's seat, 53-52.
In the fourth quarter, defenses, nerves and missed shots took over with both teams just minutes away from Prague. Hansen and Jacobsen hit triples that fueled a 3-9 spurt that allowed the guests to restore a 56-61 advantage. Panathinaikos quickly switched to zone defense, but the Greens were now unable to hit their open shots. Finally, Batiste and Spanoulis pulled the hosts within 60-61 with 4 minutes left. Jacobsen scored a couple of free throws and Diamantidis drove to the basket, yet Prigioni came up big and connected from downtown before a jumper by David extended Tau's lead to 62-68. After a much-needed timeout, Panathinaikos stormed back. Diamantidis fed Batiste for a dunk, then Spanoulis unleashed one of his trademark drives for a 66-68 score already in the final minute. Erdogan hit free throws with 49.7 seconds remaining, but Lakovic bettered him with a three-point play to bring the Greens within 69-70. Now the noise level was way off the meter, until Prigioni knocked down a critical buzzer-beating jumper for a 69-72 lead with 17.6 seconds to go. Lakovic hit 1 of 2 free throws but Erdogan made his both attempts to almost seal the win, 70-74, with just 11.9 seconds on the clock. Panathinaikos was not done, however, as Diamantidis drew a foul. With 3.1 seconds left, he scored the first free throw, missed the second on purpose so as to get the offensive rebound. The ball went out of bounds on Erdogan and Panathinaikos was given a last chance to send the game to overtime. But that wasn't meant to be. Panathinaikos inbounded to its perennial leader, Alvertis, who had made 4 of 7 triples until then, but his and his team's chance was way off target. Tau had won a classic to reach Prague.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006