History was made on Wednesday night as Euroleague first-time Montepaschi Siena reached the promised land of the Final Four in its debut season despite a 64-68 home loss to Skipper Bologna in Group E. After an earlier loss in the group by defending champion Panathinaikos (2-3), Montepaschi (4-1) can only be tied now by Skipper (3-2), but owns a head-to-head tiebreak advantage for having won by 15 points when the two teams played in Bologna last month. Montepaschi led a close match most of the way and never came close to trailing by double-digits. Skipper would have needed to win by 15 or more points to jeopardize Montepaschi's march to the Final Four. Alphonso Ford led the way for Montepaschi with 23 points, while Mirsad Turkcan added a double-double of 10 points and 17 rebounds. For Skipper, Gianluca Basile hit 15 points, while Emilio Kovacic and Giacomo Galanda scored 13 apiece.
After a few mistakes from both sides to start the game, Giacomo Galanda broke the zeros on the scoreboard with 2 mid-range jumpers and a huge triple off his hot right hand. Roberto Chiacig tried to answer with 2 layups and a free throw, but A.J. Guyton arrived to the Euroleague with a jumper and a three-pointer of his own, sending Skipper in front 5-11. Montepaschi immediately answered with 4 straight fastbreaks points. In a hot and balanced game, Skipper had the finer shooting, while Montepaschi ruled under the rims, sweeping many offensive boards. Chiacig scored 7 points in as many minutes. Montepaschi head coach Ergin Ataman subbed Ford with Dusan Vukcevic, who came out and banged in a triple for the home team's first lead, 14-12. Both teams played aggressive man-to-man defense that made for many interesting duels. Turkcan-Galanda at power forward and a physical battle between Chiacig and Mate Skelin in the paint were both raging. Chiacig had 10 points at the end of the first quarter, which closed with Gianluca Basile's prayer from the midcourt line falling in for 3 Skipper points. Nonetheless, Montepaschi held a 19-15 lead.
To start the second period, Guyton sank another bomb and Basile hit a layup, well-assisted by Vlado Scepanovic, as Skipper seized a 19-20 lead. Visiting coach Jasmin Repesa had changed a big part of his five, keeping only Galanda and Basile on the court. Basile scored in the open court as Skipper maintained a 23-24 advantage. The score stay that close until Skipper center Emilio Kovacic completed a basket-plus-free throw for a 26-30 scoreboard. But scoring was becoming difficult for both teams. Montepaschi seemed to find its answer in Ford, who used his one-on-one skills to pull the hosts within 32-33 at the half. Such a close board in a low-scoring game gave great confidence to Montepaschi. Both teams had scored well inside, making 60% of their two-pointers in the half, but both missed from downtown. Siena made only 1 of 9 three-pointers, while Skipper's shooters sank 4 of 15. Chiacig had 12 points and Ford 11 for the hosts at the half, while Basile, Guyton and Galanda had hit 7 apiece for Skipper.
Skipper put fresh legs on the court in the duo of Stefano Mancinelli-Robert Fultz, who were directed to put defensive pressure on Montepaschi point guard Vrbica Stefanov and top scorer Ford. They certainly pushed up the pace of the game and hit an amazing fastbreak with a Mancinelli slam dunk over the high arms of Mirsad Turkcan. Otherwise no one was able to hit a run. Aaron Mitchell tied it for Montepaschi at 43-43 from the fouls line with 4 minutes left in the third period. It was an important moment of the game. In fact, Ataman decided it was the time to call on Mikalis Kakiouzis, despite his left knee injury. The duo Turkcan-Kakiouzis had been the key of the match in Bologna. Montepaschi took a 50-49 lead at the end of the third quarter, but which time Ford had 19 points for the home team.
Montepaschi obtained what it wanted at the start of the final quarter: more spaces for drives and shooters ready on the three-point line. In fact Siena started the final period with 2 triples, one by Vukcevic and a corner one by Kakiouzis, and led 56-49. But Skipper still hadn't raised the white flag. Soon, Scepanovic sank a triple and Basile a layup, guiding the guests to within 56-54. There were still 5 minutes on the clock. The result was uncertain, too, but the Final Four feeling was in the air considering the prevous Panathinaikos' road loss in Istanbul. Skipper was going to have to win by 15 points to stop Montepaschi. Basile hit 5 points in a row and Skipper took a 60-62 advantage. Siena stopped scoring and Fultz added 2 more points to Skipper's total. But with 1 minute left, Turkcan hit a layup and Ford tied it 64 with a rainbow. Montepaschi wasn't going to lose by 15 points now, and the ovation of the crowd before Skipper took the win said it all about a night when losing meant winning.
Wednesday, April 9, 2003