On a rare, snowy night in Athens, the hottest team in Europe provided its own warmth as Unicaja pulled off an historic 93-95 victory against Panathinaikos to extend its winning streak to 10 games and take over first place in Group C. Berni Rodriguez put down the game-winning shot with 5 seconds to go as Unicaja became the first Euroleague team to win in Athens against Panathinaikos in 16 tries since November, 2004. Counting all its Greek League games in the interim, the Greens had a 40-game home streak - until Wednesday. What's more, with both teams tied 10-2, Unicaja stands to finish first for having handed Panathinaikos its only two losses. Both teams had injury problems, but Unicaja got great contributions across the board. Daniel Santiago led the way with 22 points to lead six Unicaja scorers in double figures. Rodriguez and Pepe Sanchez drilled 16 points each, Jorge Garbajosa 14, Stephane Risacher 13 and Marcus Brown 10. For Panathinaikos, Jaka Lakovic blasted in 25 points, Vassilis Spanoulis had 18, Mike Batiste 16 and Kostas Tsartsaris 11.
Both teams looked inside to start the game, Unicaja to Santiago and the Greens to Batiste. Nikos Hatzivrettas nailed a jumper and the free throw that came with it to give the hosts a 5-2 edge. Unicaja tried three-pointers without success until Stephane Risacher connected from the arc to tie 5-5. Marcus Brown scored on a nice pass by Santiago, but Diamantidis answered with a basket-plus-free throw and a triple from downtown for a personal 6-0 run that put the Greens up 11-7. A triple by Lakovic added to the lead before Santiago scored inside again to make it 14-9. As Unicaja kept feeding the ball inside with mixed results, Panathinaikos fired from the perimeter, and used Batiste at center in a short lineup. Lakovic hit 4 perfect free throws that made it 20-12. Risacher stepped up again with a three-point basket-plus-free throw, and then Santiago and Berni Rodriguez cut the difference further, to 22-19. Lakovic kept the run-and-gun tempo and fired from the arc to keep the Greens going at 25-21 after 10 minutes.
Lakovic's free throws to start the second quarter gave him 10 points and his team a 27-21 lead. Unicaja erased most of it with consecutive three-pointers by Rodriguez and Pepe Sanchez, interrupted by a Vassilisi Spanoulis layup for Panathinaikos. Fragiskos Alvertis struck from the arc for the hosts, but Unicaja got another there from Sanchez for a 32-30 score. Rodriguez found a basket-plus-free throw, but Spanoulis nailed the hosts’ fifth triple so far to raise a 39-33 lead. Unicaja didn't back down: Florent Pietrus, Rodriguez and Garbajosa combined on a 6-0 run to tie 39-39. Against Unicaja's zone defense, Batiste took offensive responsibility for Panathinaikos with a pair of baskets to keep the hosts in front 43-39. Brown came in off the bench to connect on a shot and Garbajosa was accurate from the line to tie again, 43-43. Then Garbajosa put the guests ahead 43-45 to complete a 0-6 run. Red-hot Lakovic took the lead back from downtown, but Sanchez responded by putting Unicaja ahead again, 46-47. Batiste and Sanchez, who was up to 12 points already, exchanged free throws, but when Kostas Tsartsaris made a layup on the buzzer, the Greens still led, 50-49, at the end of an exciting first half.
It took just seconds for Unicaja to take the lead back in the third quarter on free throws by Santiago, and when he soon dunked, the visitors led 53-56. Batiste was the go-to-guy for Panathinaikos now, but Unicaja was looking focused and confident as Brown added a triple to make it 54-58. Unicaja still found Santiago in the paint for an easy basket that made the ongoing absences of injured Panathinaikos centers Dejan Tomasevic and Patrick Femerling evident. Lakovic reached 20 points, but Santiago added another huge dunk to force a Panathinikos timeout at 60-65. Risacher added to the Unicaja lead, but Diamantidis found a triple and Spanoulis a layup in the traffic to get the Greens as close as 65-67. Sanchez again answered for Unicaja, with a big triple, while on the other end Spanoulis drew Santiago’s fourth foul, sendin him to the bench after he had scored 11 points in the quarter. Panathinaikos could not take advantage, however, as red-hot Risacher sent in a three-pointer now and another basket to end the third quarter with Unicaja ahead 71-75.
Both teams shared some bad offensive decisions to start the final quarter before Spanoulis exploded for 5 points on a triple and jump shot combination to sent Panathinaikos ahead again at 78-77. Garbajosa found a layup, but Panathinaikos was confident again. Soon Alvertis fired in another triple to make it 81-79. With 4 minutes left, it was time for Santiago to return on court, and he later forged an 82-82 tie. Panathinaikos was now missing Batiste, on the bench with a back injury, but after Lakovic scored a critical layup and Spanoulis another off the press, the Greens were in charge, 86-82. Diamantidis blocked a shot by Brown but Rodriguez rebounded, was fouled and split his free throws. Then, after Spanoulis missed, Santiago got Unicaja closer and Brown buried a shot from downtown to take back the lead at 86-88. Tsartsaris found a lucky basket to tie it, but Rodriguez answered back with a left-handed layup for 88-90. Lakovic, fouled behind the arc, made 3 of 3 free throws and Panathinaikos was back in front, 91-90. However, Sanchez stepped up again with a triple to make it 91-93 with 25 seconds left. Rodriguez took the ball and the responsibility to finish Unicaja’s most critical offence, finding the net under difficult conditions to leave the visitors up 93-95 with seconds to go. When Lakovic missed the opportunity to send the game to overtime, Unicaja escaped from snowy Athens with a great road win and first place in Group C in its hands.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006