Panathinaikos controlled its own destiny heading into the final week of the Top 16, needing only a victory on the road in Ljubljana to advance, and it did just that. The Greens won with determination, defeating Olimpija 72-79. As a result, in Bologna on Friday, May 3, Panathianikos will wage battle against Maccabi Tel Aviv in one semifinal while Kinder Bologna and Benetton Treviso square off in the other. The winners will meet for the Euroleague title on Sunday, May 5. Panathinaikos ends the Top 16 with the best record in the league at 5-1, while Olimpija ends its campaign with a disappointing 1-5. Olimpija would not go quietly and were set on upending its guests, but Panathinaikos had too much at stake and would not be denied. Lazaro Papadopoulos scored the game-high with 20 points, followed by Dejan Bodiroga with 19, Damir Mulaomerovic 16, and Ibrahim Kutluay with 10. Jiri Welsch posted 20 for Olimpija, with Beno Udrih and Tunji Awojobi both adding 16 in the losing effort.
Panathinaikos started things the way it was supposed to with a great shot by Bodiroga, but soon Olimpija showed that it was no rag doll for the Greeks to beat easily, and with a hard game in the paint led by Tunji Awojobi, the hosts were close at 4-5 after the opening two minutes. On the next trip down the court, Jiri Welsch hit two free throws and put Olimpija ahead, 6-5, and from that point on, the hosts played better and started to pull away. Two more free throws by Beno Udrih gave Olimpija a 6-point lead for 17-11, and then Darryl Middleton took to the bench after committing his third foul in minute 5 and Panathinaikos' game was clearly affected by his absence. Another display of strength by Awojobi in the paint gave Olimpija its first 10-point lead at 23-13. Dejan Bodiroga tried to keep his team on its hosts' trail, but he didn't succeed as he only managed to score 5 points in the period, and Olimpija took advantage of that to lead by 12 after the first 10 minutes, 29-17.
The second quarter started with a different mood as Bodiroga and Papadopoulos led Panathinaikos to a 0-9 run that put the score at 29-26. Awojobi broke the spell that Olimpija seemed to be under with another trademark basket under the rim, but Panathinaikos was back, and stronger than before, while for the hosts, Jiri Welsch had committed his third foul. Panathinaikos' defense was strong, constantly forcing two-on-ones and steals, and it paid off as two clean shots from the free throw line by Mulaomerovic put the Greens back in the lead, 35-36. Neither team had its night from the 6.25 line as the numbers after two quarters were 0 of 4 for Olimpija and 0 of 3 for Panathinaikos. An offensive foul by Haris Mujezinovic marked the last seconds of the first half, during which the guests forged a 5-point gap to go into the locker rooms up 37-42.
In the second half of the game, Panathinaikos confirmed the recovery shown in the second quarter as the Greeks never gave the lead back to the hosts. The clash under the boards between Papadopoulos and Awojobi was huge, but it was the player from Panathinaikos who came out on top. Bodiroga also improved his performance in the sceond half, and his jumper put the Greeks ahead by 6, 51-57. On the last play of the third quarter, Udrih dribbled through the entire defense of the guests for a fantastic lay-up that left Olimpija only 4 points down, 55-59.
The trend until the end of the game was the same, with Panathinaikos staying in the lead, and Olimpija trying to even the score, even though it seemed that the team of Ljubljana was waiting for that extra push that never arrived, until Mujezinovic managed to do so at 63-63 that made everybody think that the surprise achieved by the hosts the week before in Greece against Olympiakos was not just a coincidence. But one more time, Bodiroga was the key for Panathinaikos as he led his team at the offensive end until the end. Neither defense was playing well and the final result reflected the poor shooting percentages, which were still awful from downtown with 1 of 8 for the hosts and 0 of 8 for the guests. When Welsch was called for his fifth foul, it was clear that the Greeks would win as they were leading 68-74 with only 2 minutes to go. Awojobi scored only one of his two free throws for 69-76 but Ibrahim Kutluay's wrist appeared in the final minute to hit the three that gave tranquility to Panathinaikos and earned them a ticket to Bologna.
Thursday, April 18, 2002