AEK of Athens put the defense into the first round of the Euroleague playoffs on Thursday by handing a 69-60 defeat to one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the competition, Zalgiris Kaunas of Lithuania. With the victory, AEK takes a 1-0 lead in their best-of-three series, which moves to Lithuania for Game 2 next week. AEK coach Dusan Ivkovic surprised everyone by including defensive specialist Vassilis Kikilias in the starting five, for the express purpose of stopping Donatas Slanina, who entered the game with more three-pointers made than anyone in the Euroleague. Well, Slanina was unsettled alright. He had three fouls in the first 10 minutes.He wound up missing all 5 of his three-point attempst and settling for 7 points in 30 minutes on the floor.
Andrew Betts scored 9 out of AEK's first 20 points and led the Yellows from the beginning of the game (17-14 at the end of the first quarter), but sharp shooter Andrius Jurkunas helped Zalgiris to escape from the jail. When Imbrahim Kutluay and Vrbica Stefanov led AEK to an eight-point margin (28-20). Jurkunas and a zone defense employed by Zalgiris coach Algirdas Brazys changed the situation. Zalgiris outscored AEK by an 11-1 in 7 minutes and took the lead by 29-31, at the end of the first half. In the second half, Ivkovic made the adjustments needed and AEK found the solutions against the zone defense, thanks to Vrbica Stefanov. The 28-year-old playmaker make his team faster, helping not only as playmaker but also as scorer (9 points during the third period) and rebounder as AEK built a 12-point margin (50-38) at the end of the third period. Later on, in the 34th minute, the AEK lead reached 13 points (60-47), but Zalgiris didn' t quit, as Jurkunas, who came back from his not scoring second quarter and Grygorij Hyzhniak were very hot (62-57). With 2 minutes, 20 seconds left to play, Ibrahim Kutluay hit the most important three-pointer of the night (65-57). That was followed by a Dimos Dikoudis basket that brought the lead back to double figure margin (67-57).
"We didn' t play the way we usually do, with many assist and fast breaks, but the result counts more than the spectacle" Ivkovic said. "We managed to stop the outside players of Zalgiris, but we had problems in the paint. Playing at the playoffs we have to be realistic, so I am satisfied because we beat Zalgiris, which is a very talented team and we are going to Kaunas with more safety. It' s not a sudden-death game and I think that we have the possibility to win our ticket for the next round."
From his side, Algirdas Brazys made a very warm comment on his opponent: "AEK is a very lucky team, because it has Dusan Ivkovic on its bench. Duda is a great coach, especially in defense and that was the key point of tonight's game. Zalgiris is a very young team, without international experience, which is the biggest benefit from this kind of important games."
Thursday, February 1, 2001
Vassilis Skountis, Athens, Greece