One of the great modern comebacks in European club basketball was completed on Wednesday when Panathinaikos thrilled 18,000 of its closest friends in Athens with a 81-70 victory over visiting Benetton Treviso to storm into the Quarterfinal Playoffs from Group G. After having started the Top 16 with three losses, Panathinaikos finished 3-3 as part of a four-way tie in the group, but finished first tiebreakers due to having the best point differential (+28) for the whole round among the four teams. Benetton finished third due to its own point difference (-12) being behind that of Efes Pilsen (-1), which defeated Cibona in the other Group G game on Wednesday. Panathinaikos will take homecourt advantage into the best-of-three quarterfinals against Tau Ceramica, the second-place team from Group F. Panathinaikos needed a seven-point victory to assure its passage to the next round and found itself in a close game until finishing the third quarter with a 15-6 run. After that, the Greens left no doubt about advancing. Mike Batiste led four Greens who scored in double figures with 18 points. Vasilis Spanoulis added 17, Jaka Lakovic 13 and Fragiskos Alvertis 10 for the winners, whose defense held Benetton scoring ace Drew Nicholas to just 9 points. Marcus Goree had 18 for the visitors, Ramunas Siskauskas and Matteo Soragna 10 each.
The sellout crowd that filled OAKA Olympic Stadium created a truly fantastic atmosphere, but paradoxically Benetton was the team thaat jumped out to a good start, 0-4, behind jumpers from frontcourt players Andrea Bargnani and Goree. It wasn’t long, however, before the Greens found their composure. They tightened their defense and forced Benetton to miss 9 consecutive shots, allowing Panathinaikos to embark on an 8-0 run with 4 points by Lakovic. Benetton finally got re-started when Bargnani followed a missed layup by Goree, and when Dejan Tomacevic scored a free throw for Panathinaikos, Petar Popovic scored to get the visitors within 9-8. Now, it was the Greens who were struggling offensively. However, captain Fragiskos Alvertis stepped up for the challenge, as he first buried an open triple and then on the other end drew a charging foul on Uros Slokar. When Tomacevic slammed in transition, Panathinaikos was ahead 16-10 and while Slokar scored on a jumper to cut the deficit, the Greens held a 16-12 edge after 10 minutes.
As the second quarter got underway, Matteo Soragna connected from the arc to get Benetton within a point of the lead. After Tomacevic scored inside for the Greens, Goree got a pair of offensive boards that let Nicholas tie it up 18-18 with his first points. Panathinaikos reclaimed the lead on a triple by Lakovic that Batiste followed with a thunderous dunk off the dribble that left Benetton's players watching and the crowd on its feet. After a timeout, Benetton's answer was rapid. Siskauskas scored on a layup and later Goree drilled a triple for a 0-7 run and a 24-25 lead. Alvertis picked up the scoring slack for Panathinaikos with a fade-away jumper but Matt Santangelo one down in response for the guests. The Greens found Batiste, whose post move made it 30-27, charging up the crowd, but they went silent again as Siskauskas and Santangelo fired Benetton back in front, 30-31. Nicholas added to the advantage before Batiste's layup and free throws took bck the lead for Panathinaikos a 34-33 lead. The guests got the last chance of the half, but when Batiste fouled Nicholas shooting a triple, the Benetton guard made only 1 of 3 free throws, leaving a tie scoreboard, 34-34, at the break.
The second half commenced with both teams trading empty possessions. Free throws by Spanoulis helped Panathinaikos build a 37-34 lead, but Petar Popovic erased it with his own foul shot and layup. Tomasevic and Nikos Hatzivrettas ignited a 4-0 burst for the Greens, but they were again unable to widen the lead due to Goree's offensive prowess. He converted an offensive rebound and a three-point play to pull Benetton within 43-42. A triple by Siskauskas tied it 45-45 but Alvertis loaded his gun and fired from downtown in response for a 48-45 Panathinaikos lead. Soon, Spanoulis drove through the Benetton defense and found Hatzivrettas for 2 points. Despite Goree’s attempts, Panathinaikos was now turning the tide in its favour. With Spanoulis initiating the offense and Batiste turning the paint into his area of command, the hosts went suddenly in the driver's seat. Scoring proved now an uphill battle for Benetton, such that when Alvertis beat the buzzer, the Panathinaikos lead had soared to 60-51.
Lakovic came out on fire in the final quarter and nailed a pair of decisive triples that kept Panathinaikos firmly in front, 66-54. Soragna and Goree added 3 points apiece, but Benetton could not claw its way back. Spanoulis was in the zone with back-to-back drives that created havoc for Benetton and showed who is in charge. When the fans found out that Efes Pilsen triumphed in Zagreb and realized that Panathinaikos was due to finish atop Group G, they burst into chants and asked the Greens to bring back the glory days. Eventually the Greens cruised to an 81-70 decision, yet few in the crowd were paying attention to the final score. What was important for them was the fact that Panathinaikos had completed its amazing comeback and advanced to the quarterfinals with the precious home advantage on its side.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006