Efes Pilsen did what it had to on Wednesday night by beating Union Olimpija at home by 68-58 to try to advance to the Final Four. However, in France, Skipper Bologna escaped Pau-Orthez with a one-point win that sent it to the Final Four and left Efes wondering what might have been for another season. After it lost in Bologna on a buzzer-beating three-pointer the previous week, the only hope for Efes came with a Skipper loss in Pau. Since that was not to be, Efes finished its Top 16 participation with a 4-2 record in second place of Group E after Skipper's 5-1. Olimpija, already out of the race for Tel Aviv, finished with a 1-5 record in last place. Niksa Prkacin had a great double-double performance of 22 points and 11 rebounds for Efes, which had trailed most of the first half. Ermal Kuqo added 14 points, Kaya Peker and Antonio Granger 10 apiece for the winners. For Olimpija, Dzenan Rahimic led the way with 14 points, and Marino Bazdaric had 11. The Efes defense held Olimpija to a single free throw over 8 minutes of the third quarter to turn the game around.
Two teams known for defense threw down roadblocks to the basket from the very start. Only a dunk by Peker and a layup by Rahimic made it through the respective baskets during the first 3 minutes. A three-pointer by Osbolt, one of the few outside shots in the quarter, triggered a 0-9 run that had the guests ahead 3-11 after 5 minutes. Peker seemed the only Efes player capable of scoring until Prkacin and Ermal Kuqo also made good on opportunities around the basket to pull the hosts within 14-15 after 8 minutes. To finish the quarter, however, Olimpija pulled off another run of 0-5 with Smiljan Pavic hitting a shot and Pero Dujmovic 3 free throws to lead 14-20.
At the beginning of the second quarter, Olimpija increased the gap to 10 points, 14-24, as Pavic added a pair of free throws. But now Efes reacted with a 7-0 run started by 2 layups from Kuqo. The Efes defense held Olimpija a full 5 minutes without a field goal until Marko Maravic scored in close, holding the line for the guests at 21-26. It wasn't until the 18th minute, however, that Efes would see itself get close to the lead, and that came thanks to Prkacin. The power forward scored a basket-plus-foul and 2 more free throws in his own 5-0 run to put give Efes its first lead of the game, 29-28. Dujmovic got the lead back for Olimpija, also from the line, before Omer Onan's single foul shot tied it 30-30 to mark halftime.
In the third quarter, after a three-pointer from Bazdaric gave Olimpija another lead at 34-35 after 21 minutes, Efes took control of the match. Its man-to-man defense held Olimpija to a single free throw over the next 8 minutes, during which time Prkacin and Peker pushed the hosts ahead for good. After Antonio Granger joined in with a layup, Efes had a 44-36 advantage after 27 minutes and began flirting with double-digit leads. Only 2 more free throws would come Olimpija's way the rest of the quarter, while Kuqo evened that contribution with another inside basket to keep Efes fully in charge at 46-38 after 30 minutes.
In the last quarter, Efes's body was on the court but the minds of its players were far away in Pau, France, where only a loss by Skipper could make their Final Four dream come true. Not to be distracted, however, Efes added to the the difference on the scoreboard minute by minute, with 2 more Kuqo baskets and a triple by Onan making it 53-40 early in the final quarter. The rest of the way, Efes keep the balance at the same level and managed to win the game without problems, but the news from Pau had already reached the court. The victory was not enough for Efes to reach the place it hoped for in the Final Four and it would have to wait for another season.
Wednesday, April 7, 2004