Alba Berlin saved its chances of going to the Top 16 on Thursday with a dramatic 80-76 victory at home in Berlin over visiting AEK Athens. In front of the 6,000-strong Berlin crowd, point guard John Celestand capped his biggest performance in an Alba jersey by scoring the game's final 4 points after the two teams entered the last minute tied. Celestand not only led his team in the criticial finish, but was its top scorer overall with 21 points. Also making a giant contribution for Alba was from Quadre Lollis, who finished with a double-double of 17 points and 15 rebounds. It all added up for Alba to a 4-7 record in Group A and a chance to challenge fifth-place Cibona, loser of its last two games by a total of 63 points, when they meet on for the next game, Jan. 30 in Zagreb. For AEK, which is now 1-10 and was previously eliminated from the Top 16, Nikos Hatzis starred with 25 points and Demos Dikoudis added 13.
The game started slow, with concentrated defense on both ends as the teams were locked at 9-9 after a few minutes. Andrew Betts harmed Alba in the early going with 5 points and 2 fouls he drew on Jovo Stanojevic. For Alba, captain Henrik Rodl was the main figure during the first minutes, playing great defense vs. Kakiouzis, netting 4 points himself and feeding Lollis in the paint. Switching to zone defense, Alba earned the first fastbreak of the game, a layup by Celestand that made it 16-11. Nino Garris with a three-pointer gave Alba its first big lead, 21-13. Now it was AEK's turn to switch to zone and shorten the lead, with free throws by Zisis and Kakiuzis that closed the first quarter on 21-15.
Both teams returned in the second quarter in man-to man defenses, and Alba ran off 5 quick points on a Lollis basket and a triple by Mithat Demirel). AEK answered by introducing Blackney and Hatzis, and with a smaller lineup and good defense, the visitors looked a lot better. Kakiouzis now made use of his quickness against Alba's big men, and especially Hatzis turned almost unstoppable for Alba. He seemed to be everywhere and scored 13 points in the second quarter. Stanojevic returned for Alba, but only to receive his third foul. Hatzis with a huge three-pointer gave AEK a lead again at 30-31. Rodl answered, but Dikoudis with a big dunk put AEK ahead again. Hatzis and Blackney added 5 more points to give AEK a 34-38 lead at halftime.
After halftime, Hatzis fell into the good defensive hands of Pesic and Kakiouzis was being tended to by Rodl, but AEK managed to boost the lead a point to 39-44. AEK tried a zone again, but it was killed at once by 3 fateful triples, 2 by Celestand and 1 by Rodl, that put Alba ahead again 48-46. Then a controversial call saw Alba coach Emir Mutapcic receive a technical, plus Stanojevic and Blakney hit with their fourth fouls each. With free throws, AEK was able to retake a 52-53 lead, but Celestand with some great plays sent Alba ahead again at 55-53. Alba played the last 2 minutes with an unusual small lineup, including Lollis as center, but it worked well enough for the Berliners to take a 58-55 lead into the last quarter.
Crunch time obviously came next, and its emphasis was defense. For 5 minutes the crowd watches only 20 points scored, but an extra point went into Alba's lead, now 64-60. Finally, the time of the great plays arrives: Hatzis hit a huge triple, Rodl hit back with his own and Hatzis answered again with a three-point-play to bring AEK within 69-68. Stanojevic netted a layup and Alba switched to zone defense, but AEK got a three-pointer by Blakney to even the score, 71-71, with less than 2 minutes to go. Stanojevic chose the next one as his best minute of the game, scoring 4 difficult and risky points as Alba took charge at 76-71. But then, after a three-pointer by Blakney made it 76-75, Stanojevic had his worst minute, comitting a turnover and his fifth foul. At the line, Dikoudis had the chance to send AEK ahead again 1 minute before the siren, but only hit one free throw, to tie it up, 76-76. It was smelling like overtime, until Celestand decided against that and dropped the winning shots to save Alba's season.
Thursday, January 16, 2003