A champion came crashing down as a basketball tradition rose up again when Partizan Igokea defeated Panathinaikos 82-73 in Group D on Wednesday to reach the Quarterfinal Playoffs and liberate the Euroleague trophy for a new owner. A year after making its first Top 16 of the decade, Partizan went a step further, finishing 4-2 in Group D to set up a best-of-three playoff series with Group E winner Tau Ceramica. The heroes were many, but one a night when Panathinaikos neutralized Partizan's season-long star, Nikola Pekovic, two seasoned veterans led the way. Milt Palacio scored 24 points for the winners, including a killer driving layup heading into the final minute. Dusan Kecman has 16 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists, including a pair of late put-backs that settled the matter. Novica Velickovic added 11 points, among them a huge triple late, and Milenko Tepic 10 for Partizan, which ruled the boards to the tune of 37-18. Although it solved its turnover problems, allowing only 7, Panathinaikos could not overcome that rebounding disadvantage. The Greens grabbed a pair of brief late leads, but otherwise played from behind repeatedly. Partizan reached high leads of 9 points twice on Milenko Tepic triples, at 26-17 to end the first quarter and at 33-24 in the second. Pekovic hit a shot to match it shortly after halftime, but thereafter Panathinaikos got closer and closer until Palacio and Kecman made the difference down the stretch. Sarunas Jasikevicus led Panathinaikos with 20 points, while Mike Batiste added 12 and Vassilis Spanoulis 11.
Before the game started, sold-out Pionir Arena lustily welcomed Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic, not forgetting the man who coached Partizan's only Euroleague title team, in 1992. The scoring opened with Sani Becirovic hitting a jumper and Palacio bombing away to make it 3-2 and get the crowd going. Oddly enough, Kecman hit the second shot for Panathinaikos - an inadvertant tip-in that put the guests up 3-4 - but corrected it with a driving layup for his own team. Nobody missed as Batiste rolled to the hoop, Slavko Vranes hooked over him, Becirovic rained a triple and Velickovic drove for a layup. By the time Batiste hit a foul-line jumper, Panathinaikos led 9-11. When Palacio stepped into his second three-pointer and made it, Partizan had a new lead, 12-11, and a charged-up crowd. Next, Velickovic dunked off a steal, but Efstratos Perperoglou banged a jumper and his own fastbreak layup as the Greens went back in front, 14-15. Kecman took the lead back with free throws, Palacio hit a fadeaway and Petar Bozic bombed from deep as Partizan surged ahead 21-15. Pekovic came in then and downed his first shot, giving Partizan a 9-0 run and forcing a Panathinaikos timeout. Batiste got the Greens right with a tip-in, but Tepic faced up and beat the buzzer with a triple lift the crowd from its seats and the lead to 26-17 after 10 minutes.
Panathinaikos took a five-point bite out of the difference with a triple by Diamantidis and a two-pointer by Spanoulis to start the second quarter. Cedomir Vitkovac settled Partizan before Tepic kept up his hot hand from deep, making it 31-24. Tepic added an open baseline jumper to the lead to make it 33-24. Another tip-in by Batiste steadied Panathinaikos, then after stopping Pekovic, he fired in a turnaround jumper. Palacios hit free throws during a dry spell of shooting for both teams that he broke with a driving one-hander at 36-28. Diamantidis buried free throws, but Kecman matched him with an acrobatic layup. Spanoulis drove and shot over Vranes, then Jasikevicius hit 1 of 2 free throws at 38-33. Kecman made both of his foul shots before a timeout, after which Diamantidis struck from downtown again, cutting the difference to 40-36. Next, Diamantidis got the line and made one, but Partizan finally found Pekovic for just his second basket, enough to send the hosts to the lockers leading 42-37.
Velickovic posted up Becirovic and got 2 free throws from it to start the second half. When Pekovic then hooked over Batiste, Partizan had matched its high first-half lead, 46-37. Spanoulis quieted the crowd with a cold-blooded triple, and after Velickovic backed in again for a basket, Becirivoic's free throws made it 48-42. Jasikevicius got a rebound and went the other way to get Panathinaikos closer with a lane jumper, but Palacios answered with his third triple in as many tries at 51-44. Becirovic stayed perfect at the line, and when Palacios again rained a shot from the perimeter, Jasikevicius answered with the same to make it 53-49. Spanoulis kept the pressure up for Panathinaikos with an amazing baseline jumper. Partizan stayed static despite many second chances, and Jasikevicius made them pay with game-tying free throws at 53-53. But Partizan refused to hand over the lead. Vikovac drove one baseline for a layup and Kecman the other to make it 57-53. Then, Vitkovic cuet to take a great pass from Vranes, make the shot and the free throw that came with it at 60-53. Niksa Prkacin got a basket back for the Greens before the third quarter ended 60-55.
Prkacin started the fourth quarter with free throws, ubt Partizan rebounded and ran with Palacios hitting a layup at 62-57. Jasikevicius again found space again to shoot in from the top of the lane, but the Greens couldn't capitalize on a backcourt violation by Partizan, so Kecman hit free throws to make it 64-59. Jasikevicius wasn't done, but rather changed direction between his legs and drilled a triple. A steal and a fastbreak dunk by Diamantidis completed the Panathinaikos comeback at 64-64 with 6:42 to play. The Greens got their first since the opening quarter, 64-66, as Batiste hit a fadeaway from outside the paint. Palacios answered with a tough basket under the rim to tie 66-66. Jasikevicius got back to the line, making 1 of 2, while Tepic hit both of his free throws to make it 68-67 with 3 minutes left. Palacio also went to the line, hitting both. A huge shot came next, Velickovic shooting in a triple over Batiste at 73-67, but Jasikevicius hit 2 free throws now and the Greens forced another Partizan turnover. After a Panathinaikos timeout, Jasikevicius made an open two-pointer, making it 73-71, but Partizan answered with a tip-in by Kecman. Jasikevicius drove to get a basket back, but entering the last minute, Palacio did the same, stretching for a one-hander that seemed to break the backs of the champions. Panathinaikos passed around the perimeter on the next possession until Jasikevicius launched off-balance and missed, whereupon Pekovic took the rebound, got fouled and make both free throws. The process repeated itself, except that he missed the second and Kecman put back the rebound, making it 82-73. The reign of Panathinaikos was over, and the champs were replaced in the playoffs by a young, homegrown team and its euphoric fans.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008