Benetton Treviso finished the Euroleague regular season right where it had been aiming for months, with first place in Group A under wraps due to another handy home win, this one by 72-59 over last-place AEK of Athens. The victory left Benetton's record at 11-3, actually in a tie with Barcelona, but good for the top spot due to a tiebreak advantage of 11 points in the head-to-head games they split with a victory each. AEK finished at 1-13, which will go down as the worst regular season mark for 2002-03. Tyus Edney led the winners with 26 points, while Denis Marconato put up 10 plus 11 rebounds. Jorge Garbajosa added 10 rebounds also, while Riccardo Pittis dished 6 assists and Dante Calabria 5. For AEK, Rodney Blakney poured in 18 points, Demos Dikoudis 16 and Andrew Betts 11.
A dozen NBA scouts were on hand in Treviso to get a look at AEK's young talents in the last game of their unlucky regular season. Benetton, still needing to lock up first place, saw Calabria take the floor in place of Marcelo Nicola, still out with a leg injury. From the first possessions, it was clear that AEK didn't accept the role of sacrifical victim. Visiting head coach Dragan Sakota alternated defenses to keep Benetton guessing and thus forced a slow rhythm on a home team that likes running. Neither team could make a break until Trajan Langdon landed a three-pointer to put Benetton in front 15-10 after 7 minutes. Demos Dikoudis showed the Treviso crowd his game, going inside and outside the paint and defending Garbajosa without fear, but the Benetton run continued despite his efforts until the hosts had finished the first quarter ahead 21-12.
Blakney engaged Edney in a tough duel in the backcourt, but the Treviso crowd also appreciated very much how youngsters Nikos Zizis and Petar Antic joined the rebounding battle against the main protagonist inside, Benetton center Denis Marconato, a real white-and green octopus under the basket. Benetton coach Ettore Messina showed his own young talents now, as teenagers Manuchar Markoishvili and Kresimir Loncar took a spin on the floor. Loncar soon understood about the experience of AEK center Andrew Betts to find position and anticipate blocks. Loncar got tagged with three quick fouls, but Benetton's double-digit lead was secure at 36-24 after 17 minutes. That's where things would stay, more or less, until the half arrived with 41-30 on the scoreboard, with Edney leading the floor with 12 points.
An AEK zone defense created some trouble for Benetton after halftime. A 3-7 run by the Greek guests suddenly put a 44-37 up on the board after 24 minutes. Betts was the go-to guy right then, as he received the ball in the close spaces near the lane and got the best of Marconato. Though it seemed to be suffering, Treviso was the hare to AEK's turtle, and was able to scurry ahead again, thanks as usual to Edney. A 10-2 run over two minutes was all that was needed for a new double-digit advantage, 54-39, that looked even more solid for the lateness in the game. AEK called timeout and tried to turn up the heat on defense, but Marconato went over the zone to shoot it down, while the Yellows just could not fire the ball in. After 30 minutes, it was 58-43.
In the fourth quarter, the Benetton lead grew and settled at 18 points, 63-45, with a Markoishvili triple. The biggest advantage for the hosts came at 70-49 halfway through the final period. These Greens were ready to stamp their first-place finish and to lead a group in the Top 16, too. For AEK, its European season was dwindling to a close, but its players were already thinking of how to get back on the Euroleague stage for next season.
Wednesday, February 12, 2003