Defending champions Panathinaikos took the high road to what is sure to be a Top 16 spot after coming back on Wednesday for a 64-56 home win over Montepaschi Siena in a a defensive struggle that had a thrilling final quarter. The Greens were down by 9 in the third quarter, but rallied behind veterans Fragiskos Alvertis and Ibrahim Kutluay, who combined for 4 three-pointers in the final 10 minutes. The victory allowed Panathianikos to retain a piece of first place in Group B at 8-3. Panathinaikos took full advantage of the absence of two key Montepaschi starters - Euroleague rebounding leader Mirsad Turkcan and shooter Dusan Vukcevic - to dominate the boards 41-24, including 18-5 on the offensive end. But not even Montepaschi could expect, after holding the hosts to 39 points in three quarter, a barrage of 26 points by Panathinaikos in the fourth. Alvertis led the winners with 16 points, Antonis Fotsis picked up a double-double with equal points and rebounds, 15, and Kutluay popped for 12 points. For Montepaschi, Alphonso Ford tallied 21 points and Mindaugas Zukauskas 12, but no other visitor managed more than 6 points. Montepaschi's record fell to 5-6 and endangered its chances for the Top 16 with 3 games remaining.
Without Vukcevic and Turkcan, Montepaschi started very aggressive, while Panathinaikos began with a small team (Giorgos Ballogiannis and Jaka Lakovic started) to put pressure on the ball. Both sides suffered poor scoring at the beginning of the first quarter, with the hosts managing just 2 points in the first 5 minutes. Montepaschi missed a couple of easy attempts but was able to lead 2-8 after 5 minutes. Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic started rotating in bench players, but only Darryl Middleton was able to sting Montepaschi's defense. The guests got the ball to Ford, who drilled 6 important points as Montepaschi kept the lead at 8-18 at the end of the first period.
Siena kept ahead in the second quarter, thanks to Ford, but suffered foul troubles to Zukauskas, who had to be benched. Panathinaikos tried to come back and reduced the gap to 18-21 with Rodney Buford and Arriel McDonald getting points. The difficult scoring continued, but Siena missed many easy shots, including a missed dunk by Roberto Chiacig on a pass from Ford. Vrbica Stefanov scored a layup and Giancarlo Marcaccini added a triple for a boost in the lead to 20-28. Kutluay reduced the gap at halftime with a couple of free throws, and Panathinaikos closed the first half with only 6 points to make up, 22-28.
Montepaschi kept control of the game's pace also in the third quarter, denying the Greens any fastbreaks despite the accumulating rebounding advantage for the hosts. Panathinaikos suffered bad three-point shooting until then, 0 for 9 in the first 28 minutes. Montepaschi tried to take advantage of double teams that Panathinaikos ran at Chiacig and Ford to create open shots for others. It worked enough that the visitors had 9 points to defend, 31-40, midway through the quarter. But a decrease in intensity allowed Panathinaikos to try to come back, with its first three-pointers, by Fotsis and Alvertis, lighting the spark. Their shots were part of an 8-2 run with which the hosts closed the quarter with only 3 points to make up, 39-42.
Panathinaikos launched its overthrow when the fourth quarter started. Kutluay sank 2 threes in a row and tied the score 45-45, and Montepaschi seemed shocked by the quick change of momentum. The crowd got involved in the game, and Siena was able to score only one basket over the next several minutes. Chiacig stopped the slide with a couple of free throws, but Middleton responded in kind. Montepaschi started forcing its shots, while the drive-and-pass plays of Panathinaikos were good enough to earn open shots. After Kutluay, Alvertis sank 2 threes of his own in a row, and those baskets cleared the way, at 53-47, for a Panathinaikos victory. Montepaschi never came back from that KO. Panathinaikos took the game in hand, and the guests scored only 1 free throw to stop the bleeding. Alvertis hit another three, and the hosts found also points by Lakovic and Middleton until the final 64-56.
Wednesday, January 15, 2003
Kostas Sotiriou, Athens