AEK of Athens has drawn first blood in the Top 16 with a resounding 97-87 Group G victory on Thursday in Athens over visiting Union Olimpija of Slovenia. AEK took control early, posting the game's first 10 points, and never stopped rolling up the numbers as it led tipoff to buzzer. Save for the third quarter, when Olimpija rallied to within three points, the Yellows could not be stopped by one of the regular season's top defenses. As such, AEK moves to 1-0 in Group G with an all-important double-digit victory margin while Olimpija falls to 0-1. Demos Dikoudis led AEK with 23 points, J.R. Holden added 21, Mikalis Kakiouzis 15, Andrew Betts 14 and Chris Carr 10. The top scorer on the floor was Olimpija's Jiri Welsch with 24 points. Haris Mujezinovic added 18, Beno Udrih 13, Tunji Awojobi 12 and Jurica Golemac 10 for the visitors.
AEK hit the floor intending to show, from the very first moment, which team was boss. And that the Yellows did, taking control on both defense and offense en rout to a 10-0 lead after 6 minutes. More than half of those points came on free throws, but that double-digit lead would become the standard in the first half. Haris Mujezinovic left the court with a bloody mouth and returned to score Olimpija's first field goal, but it didn't change the scenario of the game yet. Dragan Sakota had ordered his players to take advantage of their superior inside game, so Demos Dikoudis and Andrew Betts began to dominate in the paint. Then J.R. Holden and Michalis Kakiouzis hit consecutive three-point shots, good for a 21-9 lead 2 minutes before the end of the quarter. Only then did Olimpija rally to get the lead under double digits, at 24-15, after 10 minutes.
Early in the second quarter, however, AEK was dominating again. The hosts, with great defense both on the perimeter and in the paint, opened the gap to 16 points at 36-20 after 14 minutes. Holden started to score with frequency. Sakota saw an opportunity to give some rest to his starters, but AEK remained the boss, especially on defense, where it allowed no open shots to the Slovenians. At the end of the first half, a 44-31 lead was the absolute proof of the superiority of AEK over 20 minutes. On the scoring end, Holden was up to 11 points for the home team, with Dikoudis (9), Betts (8) and Kakiouzis (7) right behind. Tunji Awojobi was the best scorer of Olimpija with 10 points.
The zone defense Zmago Sagadin put on the court and the offense Olimpija found changed the image of the game after halftime. Welsch led his team on a comeback, scoring 10 points in 6 minutes to lift Olimpija to within 56-50 midway through the third quarter. Kakiouzis and Dikoudis stepped up and hit consecutive three-pointers to give AEK a breather, part of a 9-2 run that boosted the lead back to double digits, 65-53. But Olimpija was confident now. Beno Udrih hit 2 three-pointers of his own now, good enough to cut the margin to 67-64 less than a minute before the end of the period. But Dikoudis answered with another triple for a 70-64 AEK edge heading into the final quarter.
Was it going to be a thriller? Olimpija certainly tried to make it one, but AEK was ready to protect its lead and to start the Top 16 off strong. Despite, the Slovenians' aggressive defense, Holden didn't allow the victory to escape. The American point guard scored 10 points during the last quarter and that was the key for the Yellows to keep that double-digit lead all the way through the finish. A few seconds before the end, Kakiouzis dunked for a 13-point margin, 97-84, but at the buzzer Vlado Ilieski sink a three-pointer to get some points back for Olimpija.
Wednesday, February 27, 2002
Vassilis Skountis, Athens