FC Barcelona tightened its hold on the Group A lead when it turned away visiting AEK of Athens with a solid 79-62 home victory on Wednesday night. Barca remains undefeated at 5-0 and now sits two victories ahead of nearest competitors Partizan and Ulker, who both lost. AEK, meanwhile, fell to 1-4 and must fix its sights now on the lower places that come with a Top 16 berth. Experience was the key again as Barca pulled away easily in second half behind 19 points from Dejan Bodiroga and 14 from Gregor Fucka. Juan Carlos Navarro added 12 points and Anderson Varejao 10 for the winners, who were not hurt at all by 1-for-10 three-point accuracy. For AEK, the relentless Quadre Lollis posted a double-double of 15 points and 14 rebounds. Horace Jenkins added 11 points and Nikos Hatzis 10 for the visitors, who struggled with 5-for-15 free throw shooting.
Both teams committed many mistakes in the first quarter, but especially Barcelona. As such, AEK was able to grab slim early leads as Nikos Zizis dropped 5 points in a row, including the only three-pointer of the quarter, to put the visitors up 8-10. In a show of depth, Barca coach Svetislav Pesic brought in four new players - Roger Grimau, Juan Carlos Navarro, Anderson Varejao and Roberto Dueñas - after 7 minutes, but the subs didn't push their team immediately. With Lollis doing his job on the boards against the Barca towers, in fact, AEK was able to hold its own right through to the end of the quarter, when a basket by Jenkins made it 15-16 for the visitors.
Showing he was not just an inside force, Lollis scored the second three-pointer for AEK, giving the Greek team a 15-19 edge to start the second quarter. Barcelona reacted through Bodiroga and Navarro, who sank his team's first triple, sending the champs ahead quickly on the scoreboard to a 31-25 advantage. AEK was in foul trouble now, but nonetheless regained a 31-32 advantage after 18 minutes on a basket by Blagota Sekulic after Nikos Hatzis had contributed 5 points. At the end of the period the free throws made the difference for Barcelona. A three-pointer from Jenkins hit the rim and went off in the last second, so the hosts went to the lockers up by just 2 points, 37-35.
The Barcelona players came out more focused after halftime and as their defense improved, they started to score at ease for the first time in the game. On the other hand, AEK could only manage to score 3 points during 5 minutes, all on one shot by Jenkins. After 25 minutes the score was 53-38, with Bodiroga and Fucka doing their best so far, with 8 points apiece in the quarter. Barcelona's lead shot up to 17 points, 57-40, despite the continuing effort on the boards by Lollis for AEK. Navarro assisted on one basket and scored the last 2 himself to preserve Barca's double-digit edge at 61-47 after 30 minutes.
AEK never gave up. The guests tried to level the game with better defence and continued fighting for every rebound. Barcelona couldn't maintain the same level it had showed in the third quarter and with 4 minutes, 50 seconds left, the difference was back to single digits, 67-58. Soon, Christos Tapoutos made one of the best plays of the night, blocking a three-point attemp by Bodiroga and dunking at the other end for 71-60. But the win was never in danger for the home team, who would reach again its earlier maximum lead, 17 points, and hold that until the final buzzer.
Wednesday, December 3, 2003
Juan Antonio Casanova, Barcelona