The so-called "Greek Group" held another local battle in Athens on Thursday night and when it was done, Olympiakos had held on to beat AEK 75-69 after having given up all of a double-digit lead it forged in the first half. The veterans of Olympiakos did their jobs as usual, but it was young Misan Nikagbatse who saved the day after AEK rebounded to take a late three-point lead. Nikagbatse hit the three-pointer that reclaimed the advantage for the Reds, then calmly kept his team ahead by draining 4 free throws down the stretch. All 7 of his points came in the last 3 minutes. Alphonso Ford led the winners with 24 points. Theodoros Papaloukas, in his most proficient game of late, added 18, and James Forrest 14. As such, Olympiakos climbed to the head of Group G at 2-0, a victory ahead of both AEK and Panathinaikos (1-1 each), who defeated Union Olimpija (0-2) across town in Athens almost simultaneously. AEK was led by J.R. Holden with 18 points. Demos Dikoudis added 11, but was hampered by foul trouble all night, and Mikalis Kakiouzis 10.
AEK missed its first 9 shot attempts, and that in itself gave Olympiakos early control of the game. The game was just five minutes old and the Reds were already up a dozen, 13-1. Good perimeter defense, especially that of Papaloukas against Holden, led to fastbreaks on offense that allowed Olympiakos to maintain a double-digit gap. That came with a lot of spectacular highlights that went down quite well with the 10,000 fans dressed in red at Peace and Friendship Stadium. Olympiakos kept pushing all the right buttons throughout the first quarter until it hit a maximum lead of 16 points, 31-15, at the conclusion of what were 10 long minutes for AEK. Olympiakos had managed to dominate in every level of the game. Ford led his team in scoring with 10 points while Kakiouzis scored 6 for AEK. The Olympiakos defense limited Holden to one free throw.
AEK came out for the second quarter with one objective: to recover and compete. Defensive ace Vassilis Kikilias entered the court to defend Ford, but he also took advantage of the decision by Olympiakos coach Lefteris Subotic to leave one opponent free to shoot from the perimeter. Kikilias took three opportunities thankfully and sank them all, even while he kept making life difficult for Ford. AEK coach Dragan Sakota tried, successfully, to change the tempo of the game by using three guards (Holden, Nikos Hatzis, Nikos Zissis) and a zone defense. Subotic answered by using three guards (Papaloukas, Ford, Milan Tomic) as well. In that type of game, Olympiakos lost its first-quarter killing spirit and AEK, dominating the boards (10 offensive rebounds) managed to cut the gap all the way down to 4 points, 37-33, with 3:40 left until halftime. Now the derby was on! Olympiakos could not stop the momentum of AEK, which finally tied the game on a three-pointer by Hatzis, and then took its first lead, 40-41 on a buzzer beater by Holden. AEK had won the second quarter 9-22.
The second half was a whole new ballgame. Olympiakos ran off 6 unanswered points, including a Papaloukas three-pointer, while forging ahead 49-43, but the Yellows didn't give up. Holden, ingoring his 2-for-12 shooting in the first half, pushed the tempo and Kakiouzis, with a pair of free throws, brought AEK to within 56-55 two minutes before the end of quarter. Olympiakos got the last 3 points, however, to hold a 59-55 lead after 30 minutes.
At the beginning of the last period, Holden tied the game, 59-59, for AEK. Olympiakos could not find anymore opportunities to run the floor and was obliged to play half-court offense. Ford seemed the only scoring option for his team. Holden shocked the house again with another three-pointer launched above three defenders to give AEK a two-point lead, 59-61, 6 minutes and 45 seconds before the end. Dikoudis left the court with five personal fouls, but the Yellows still led by three points, 64-67, 2:33 before the end. And then came Nikakbatse's turn. The Olympiakos guard, a real accidental hero, hit a three-pointer to give his team the lead, 69-67, and then he sealed the victory by hitting 4 of 4 free throws. He scored 7 of the final 9 points for Olympiakos.
Thursday, March 7, 2002