They are not the defending champs for nothing. Panathinaikos took a major step toward its goal of finishing first in Group B by coming back to win 86-83 at home in Athens on Thursday against one of the teams it had been tied with, Tau Ceramica. Down by 9 points late in the third quarter, Panathinaikos tied before the final one, then got consecutive three-pointers from Antonis Fotsis to pull away down the stretch. Fotsis paced the winners with 17 points, while Arriel McDonald added 14, Darryl Middleton 12 and Rodney Buford 10. The Greens only turned the ball over 8 times all game. Panathinaikos is now 9-3 and could take over first place exclusively depending on how the other co-leader, Union Olimpija, fares against Maccabi in Tel Aviv on Thursday. Tau, who was without one big man, Rashard Griffith, but saw the return of another, Luis Scola, falls to 8-4. Andres Nocioni led Tau with a double-double of 22 points and 10 rebounds. Laurent Foirest scored 19 more for Tau, Jose Manuel Calderon 18 and Jerome Allen 12.
Buford scored the first 8 points for Panahinaikos in under 3 minutes to give the Greens an 8-6 advantage. But Tau turned on its uptempo game to blow holes in the Panathinaikos defense. Nocioni scored 7 points in a 2-11 run that catapulted the Spanish champs in front by 10-17 after 5 minutes. Tau saw the benefits of its dynamic, run-and-gun style and continued to prey on the slow defensive reactions of the Greens. Calderon seemed especially unstoppable, even invisible to the Panathinaikos defenders whenever he made his outstanding penetrations. Greens head coach Zeljiko Obradovic tried defensive specialist Giorgos Balogiannis instead of McDonald and continued with Giorgos Kalaitzis. The new chemistry saw the Panathinaikos defense settle down while the offense scored 7 unanswered points good enough to tie the score 19-19. Obradovic then tried a short team with Frangiskos Alvertis at power forward position. The Panathinaikos captain dropped a three-pointer to give his team back a lead, 26-24, but Tau tied it 26-26 to conclude a busy first quarter.
Tau coach Dusko Ivanovic must have been happy as his team's effective and spectacular play continued with Nocioni making a three-pointer that put the visitors up 26-31. Now came Foirest's turn, and with it he scored 7 consecutive points to give Tau its biggest margin yet, 30-38, after 14 minutes. But this was going to be a game of runs, so now Panathinaikos put up 7 consecutive points ending with a McDonald layup to cut the deficit to 37-38. Jaka Lakovic drilled a jumper for a 41-41 tie with under 4 minutes left, but after Panathinaikos took its first lead of the quarter, 45-44, on free throws by Alvertis, Tau kept fastbreaking behind Allen. The result was 4 consecutive points with which the visitors closed the half ahead, 45-48. Calderon and Nocioni were leading Tau with 12 points each, while Buford was up to 10 for the Greens.
Tau had shot with great accuracy in the first half - 76% on two-pointers and 66% on threes - and Foirest proved he was ready to keep it going in the second. The French swingman eluded both Alvertis and Ibrahim Kutluay to throw down some great shots, scoring 10 of Tau's first 12 points in the third quarter as the margin for the visitors soared to 51-60 after 26 minutes. Kutluay, who was nursing an injury, couldn't find his own shots, so Tau continued as boss of the proceedings by expertly balancing defense and offense between the backcourt and front line. Panathinaikos tried to react and finally did so thanks to some good defense. McDonald's 3 points on a basket and foul shot reduced the deficit to 60-62 and then the ageless Middleton tied it all up, 62-62, 11 seconds before the end of the third quarter.
By the beginning of the fourth quarter, it was clear that both teams would try to win with defense. Obradovic called big Lazaros Papadopoulos from the bench to add some centimeters and to rest Middleton. The Greens ran off the first 6 points, including a Kutluay triple, to push ahead 71-65. Kutluay was also stopping Foirest now, and soon he added another basket to a scoreboard that now read 73-67. The decisive baskets came with a first and last name: Antonis Fotsis. His back-to-back three-pointers were good for an eight-point lead for the Greens, 79-71, with 3 minutes remaining. Allen and Nocioni were able to spark Tau's last run to pull the visitors within 81-79, but the Greens didn't panic. After free throws by Lakovic and Kutluay, a final game-tying attempt by Allen missed and the defending champs had taken one more step toward finishing first in Group B.
Wednesday, January 29, 2003
Vassilis Skountis, Athens