Free throw frenzy was the name of the game Thursday night in Athens as Panathinaikos beat AEK in overtime by 96-92 and saw its Final Four fortunes turn completely around, for the better. Like that, Panathinaikos jumped to the top of group G with a 4-1 record, taking full advantage of Olympiakos' home loss to Union Olimpija. AEK, meanwhile, dropped to 2-3 and waved goodbye to its options to qualify for the Final Four in Bologna. As things stand, Panathinaikos will qualify next week if it wins against Olimpija in Slovenia next week or if Olympiakos loses. Olympiakos can only make the Final Four now if it beats AEK and Panathinaikos loses. The game had some interesting numbers, mainly from the free throw line as Panathinaikos shot 33 of 48 to AEK's ultimately game-losing 35 of 52. Those misses would turn out decisive at the end of the game and in overtime. Dejan Bodiroga led all scorers for the winners with 27 points, Giannis Giannoulis added 15, Fragiskos Alvertis and Damir MUlaomerovic nailed 14 each and Darryl Middleton contributed 12. For AEK, Michalis Kakiouzis scored 18, JR Holden sank 15 and Nikos Hatzis and Dimos Dikoudis added 11 each.
Panathinaikos got what it wanted to start the game, baskets from Middleton and Bodiroda that made it a quick 4-0. But Holden nailed a three-pointer and Andrew Betts got a basket inside to give AEK its first lead at 4-5. Chris Carr then checked in with a three-pointer that made it 6-8 for the visitors after 5 minutes, and then Jim Bilba added free throws to the lead. Giannis Giannoulis joined the scoring to pull Panathinaikos within 10-11, but neither team could take a real hold of the lead at any given point. Both Bodiroga and Middleton scored to forge ties at 12-12 and 14-14, respectively, then Kakiouzis put AEK in front again at 17-16. The visitors could have been happy so far, but a third foul by Carr late in the quarter didn't allow for it. Nikos Zisis hit free throws that seemed to give AEK the lead after 10 minutes, but Mulaomerovic matched him to put the Greens in front by a point, 20-19, when the buzzer sounded.
Dikoudis makes the first basket in the second period to put AEK ahead, but Johnny nailed a shot from 6 meters in response. Kakiouzis and Holden scored the next four points however as the visitors surged ahead 24-27 after 13 minutes. Bilba was now limiting Middleton, who had 7 first-quarter points, to nothing as Panathinaikos looked for offense with a small lineup that included Kutluay, Mulaomerovic, Alvertis nad Bodiroga. A Holden three-pointer stretched AEK's edge to 26-30 and Dikoudis threw down a dunk on to p of that. When Zisis made a steal that led to a pair of free throws, AEK had the biggest lead in the game, 26-34. It took a couple of three-pointers, by Alvertis and Mulaomerovic, just for Panathinaikos to stay close, but with Dikoudis scoring 11 points in the quarter, AEK was able to guard a 34-41 advantage. Zisis stepped up with a three-pointer as that set the scoreboard at 38-44, but Panathinaikos was finding its rhythm. The Greens would end up scoring 15 points in the final three minutes of the quarter. It took a Dikoudis buzzer-beater for AEK just to get to the half with a lead reduced to 3 points, 43-46.
After resumption, both teams showed excellent defensive levels and didn't let the rival think, let alone make easy shots. Bodiroga broke that trend with a three and an excellent layup coming from the arc that tied the game. Panathiniakos was back. The crowd went nuts with Bodiroga and it began to become one of the decisive factors as the pressure started to affect AEK's players. From that point, the hosts took the lead at 58-57 and never let it go. With 62-57 it seemed like Panathinaikos would be able to stake a bit of control of the action, but a final 0-4 AEK run including a Nikos Hatzis jumper on the buzzer put the scoreboard 62-61 at the end of the third.
In the last quarter both teams started taking turns in the lead, a trend that would last until the end of the game and keep the fans on edge. Holden got rid of two defenders to sink a layup for a 65-66 AEK advantage, but then Alvertis went for a four-point play including a three and the fifth foul by Chris Carr. That made it 71-68 and seemed it would put Panathinaikos ahead for good. It was Kakiouzis who kept his team in the game with fast baskets. Together with a three by Kikilias, he gave the lead back to AEK, 73-75. With one minute to go, the score was 76-77 and the free throw festival began. Holden was the player with more opportunities, but he hit a poor 2 of 5 that was probably the key of the game. Following a free throw pace, the score was tied at 81 with 2 seconds to go and Giannis Giannoulis was back at the free throw line with the game in his hands, but he missed both attempts. The second ball got stuck in the rim for a jump ball that was only good to send the teams to OT.
The extra period had two major features: more free throws and a parade of players going to their bench after committing their fifth fouls. Neither team went ahead by more than 4 ponts, which was the lead for AEK with 2 minutes and 19 seconds to go after two free throws by Andrew Betts for 85-89. Then key players such as Holden, Mulaomerovic, Kutluay or Hatzis started being sent to the bench on fouls, so the players with less minutes jumped on court. One was Pepe Sanchez, who would be decisive in one of the last plays as he became one of the few players who made both free throws attempted for 95-91 after Spiros Panteliadis had missed two for AEK. Vassilis Kikilias was fouled on a desperate three by Bodiroga, but of the three free throws, Kikilias was only able to score one and Olympiakos still led 95-92. In the very last play, Johnny Rogers scored 1 of his 2 attempts from the free throw line, good enough to take away the three-point option from AEK and give Panathinaikos a clear shot to the Final Four.
Wednesday, April 3, 2002