Montepaschi made the biggest move of its first year in the Euroleague as it knocked off defending champion Panathinaikos 82-76 in Siena on Thursday. The victory vaulted Montepaschi into first place in Group E at 2-0, ahead of Panathinaikos and Skipper Bologna, both 1-1. Without Rodney Buford, scratched before the game due to an anti-doping test result in the Greek League, and Fragiskos Alvertis, recovering from pneumonia, the Greens entered the game without a small forward. Montepaschi was able to use this advantage as Mindaugas Zukauskas and Alphonso Ford drilled 20 apiece from the perimeter. Zukauskas landed 6 three-pointers of 7, freezing the Greek defense. Vrbica Stefanov added 11 points and Mirsad Turkcan 16 rebounds, 12 in the second half, for the winners. For Panathinaikos, Antonis Fotsis registered another excellent double-double of 22 point and 11 rebounds. Darryl Middleton scored 19 points, mostly in the first half, while Arriel McDonald never gave up and collected 12 by the finish.
It was clear early that Panathinaikos would have mismatch problems without Buford and Alvertis. Montepaschi got out to a 5-0 start, but otherwise didn't use its fastbreak opportunities. A few Montepaschi turnovers opened the floor to Fotsis, who started his match with 2 slam dunks, reversing the last one for show. McDonald picked up Zuauskas at small forward, but he lost the Lithuanian ice man twice, and as a result 2 three-pointers fell for Montepaschi. Still, Panathinaikos matched its hosts shot for shot and point for point all along the period. Middleton battled Montepaschi's Roberto Chiacig in the low post for position on every possession. Middleton would come out of it with 6 points in the quarter, Chiacig 5, and that difference was enough to put Panathinaikos ahead by the mimimum, 17-18, after 10 minutes.
For the second quarter, Montepaschi coach Ergin Ataman switched to a small lineup with Turkcan and Mikalis Kakiouzis as his frontcourt. The hosts surged ahead 23-20 as Ford hit a fade-away jumper and scored on a fastbreak. But Ford soon suffered fouls trouble and was benched. Middleton and Fotsis became a factor under the rims for Panathinaikos and McDonald controlled the tempo for the visitors. Turkcan found the way to the basket for his first points after 16 minutes, stealing an offensive rebound from Fotsis to tie the score 30-30. Now, Dusan Vukcevic drove the baseline for a 32-30 Montepaschi lead, but Jaka Lakovic immediately tied on 2 free throws. When McDonald went to the bench to rest, Montepaschi sprung full-court pressure on the Greens, stealing precious seconds from each Panathinaikos possession. But the visitors swept the boards and had many extra shots. As such, with 5 seconds to go before the break, the Greens took a 36-39 lead with a layup by Giorgios Kalaitzis. But the half wasn't over yet. After a Montepaschi timeout, Stefanov raced coast to coast, shooting a rainbow over Middleton's hands for a 38-39 scoreboard after 20 minutes. Middleton was leading the visitors with 14 points while Zukauskas had 9 for Montepaschi.
Zukauskas went on raining from downtown in the second half, making his fourth triple even as Ford topped 10 points himself with a spectacular basket. It was Montepaschi's moment, and the key run was built with strong defense and the fine shooting of the Zukauskas-Ford duo, who added another triple and fastbreak dunk, respectively, to complete a 10-0 run to start the half. Panathinaikos head coach Zeljko Obradovic called timeout at 48-39. No center was on the court as Obradovic chose Fotsis and Kostas Tsartsaris to confront Turkcan and Kakiouzis under the rims. But Ford, unaffected by the Greek defense, kept climbing to 15 points and Montepaschi's lead held with him. Fotsis tried to react with 6 points in a couple minutes, but he got little help inside or out. The third period finished with Montepaschi on a 64-54 lead.
The fourth quarter opened with Ford scoring 3 points himself and Panathinaikos was quickly down 13 with 9 minutes to play. Middleton came off from the bench and McDonald and Lakovic drove more into the lane, obliging Montepaschi's defense to rotate continuously. But Panathinaikos needed something more from its shooters. The time was sliding away and Montepaschi was still ahead 73-60 with 5 minutes to go. Fotsis hit a triple now that cut that to 75-67, but the threat lasted no more than a few seconds, the time it took Kakiouzis to measure and drill a bomb from the corner. Zukauskas was fouled out with 21 seconds to go and 20 points, before a standing ovation from the Siena crowd. McDonald scored 3 free throws late, decreasing the gap to the final 82-76, which the defending champs will no doubt have to make up when the teams meet again in Athens, if they hope to return to the Final Four.
Thursday, March 6, 2003
Stefano Sensi, Siena