Already qualified for the Top 16, Panathinaikos strengthened its first-place standing in Group C by easily handing guests Montepaschi an 89-79 defeat in Athens on Thursday. Both teams had injuries to a pair of big men each, but Panathinaikos swarmed to early leads and held them throughout the game to the delight of the home crowd. The Greens improved to 9-1, the Euroleague's best record, and avoided a first-place tie with Unicaja (8-2). Montepaschi, meanwhile, fell to 3-7 and more danger in terms of reaching the Top 16. Mike Batiste led five double-digit scorers for Panathinaikos with 17 points on perfect 6-for-6 two-point and 5-for-5 free throw shooting. Vasilis Spanoulis followed with 16 points, Jaka Lakovic with 13, Dimitris Diamantidis and Kostas Tsartsaris with 11 each. Montepaschi got 17 points from teenager Luigi Datome, including 3 of the team's 12 triples. Justin Hamilton added 15 points, Duane Woodward 14 and Jamel Thomas 11 for the guests.
Panathinaikos jumped in front on a drive by Nikos Hatzivrettas, but Montepaschi answered back as Woodward put on a shooting display and scored 7 consecutive points. Despite playing without key frontcourt players, Ben Eze and Shaun Stonerook, the guests were able to dominate the boards and control the pace of the game. With Justin Hamilton contributing five points, Montepaschi went ahead 9-12 midway through the quarter. However, the Greens then showed why they came into the game with the Euroleague's best record. The tandem of Lakovic and Dimitris Diamantidis restored a 16-14 advantage for the hosts and then Lakovic fed Batiste for a thunderous dunk that brought the crowd to its feet. Montepaschi was now struggling defensively and the first quarter ended with a layup by Diamantidis and the Greens in charge 26-18.
Panathinaikos missed its first 5 shots in the second quarter, but its defense - even with specialist Diamantidis on the bench - made sure that Montepaschi did not take advantage. So when Lakovic and Kostas Tsartsaris started connecting, the lead quickly soared to double digits, 37-26. In the next possession, Batiste stole the ball and Tsartsaris finished a fastbreak with authority. The noise level went off the meter in Athens and Panathinaikos was clearly in charge. Montepaschi tried to respond, as Rimantas Kaukenas buried a triple and Luigi Datome scored on a layup, but still the Greens stayed comfortably ahead at intermission, 44-32.
The second half got underway with a barrage of three-pointers on both ends. Hamilton one for the Montepaschi, but Dusan Sakota drilled a pair of them to boost the margin to 56-38 for Panathinaikos after 23 minutes. The downtown show went on, as Datome fired from the arc, too, nevertheless Batiste took charge and with 5 consecutive points kept the Greens going at 61-44. Montepaschi was hot from the arc with Datome and Hamilton, but defensively they could not contain Spanoulis and Company. And when Hatzivrettas rose up for a two-handed slam and drew a foul to make it 71-54 in the waning seconds of the third quarter, the fans erupted and began singing about the much-coveted Euroleague trophy.
As the fourth quarter started, Panathinaikos kept charging at full speed until the margin hit 20 points as Hatzivrettas scored on an offensive rebound. Both teams embarked on a fascinating display of run-and-gun basketball. Datome connected on his third triple of the night, while Spanoulis hit from just as far to make it 80-62 and put any hopes of a Montepaschi comeback out of reach. Thomas was not willing to give up and produced a four-point play to make it 82-67 with 4 minutes to go. However, the Greens' performance was too good to be stunned by any late heroics. They eventually cruised to an emphatic 89-79 victory, their
Thursday, January 12, 2006
Danos Tsakalos, Athens