It may have tripped at the start of the Top 16, but Panathinaikos is back in the thick of the Group G race after winning at home 85-67 against Union Olimpija, despite playing most of the first half without team leader Dejan Bodiroga. The guy that Panathinaikos fans have been waiting to explode, Ibrahim Kutluay, did just that when it was needed most, scoring 22 points, including 13 in a blistering first quarter that put the Greens in control. Giannis Giannoulis added 17 for the winners, Darryl Middleton 14 and Bodiroga 13 after climbing off the bench late in the second quarter, after his team was ahead by double digits. Olimpija was led in scoring by Jiri Welsch with 15 points, Haris Mujezinovic and Jure Zdovc with 14 each. With the victory, Panathinaikos improves to 1-1, the same as AEK, which lost to group leader Olympiakos (2-0) in the night's other big game in Athens. Olimpija falls quickly to 0-2 and has to hope it can turn things around when it plays its first home game in Ljubljana in two weeks.
With their anchor, Bodiroga, on the bench, Panathinaikos began the game charged up and ready to establish its offensive identity in the paint. The dominant force in the he early going was Middleton. The veteran forward scored 9 points as Panathinaikos shot out to a 14-5 lead. Then the Greens went outside, where Kutluay dropped in a pair of three-pointers during an 8-0 run. Despite the young legs on the Olimpija defense, neither of those veterans would be stopped during the first 10 minutes, as the Panathinaikos lead soared. Kutluay would finish with 13 points - the same as the entire Olimpija team - and Middleton had 11 as the first quarter closed with the locals firmly in command, 29-13.
The break between quarters did not serve Olimpija as a start-over opportunity. Panathinaikos began the second quarter the same as the first, with an 8-3 run. George Kalaitzis ignited the run with a steal against that set his team to fastbreaking. Fragiskos Alvertis finished it by nailing his first field goal for a 37-16 advantage. The Panathinaikos fans could not ask for more, but they got more anyway. Bodiroga climbed off the bench and made his first basket to make it 39-18. Middleton had been controlling the inside still, but when he sat in the bench, Olimpija took the chance and cut the lead with an 8-2 run to 41-26. Johnny Rogers nailed a three-pointer and then Kutluay made a difficult fade away jumper to send the Panathinaikos lead back to 20 points, 46-26. Olimpija was able to trim only a point from that before the teams headed to the locker rooms with the Greens ahead 49-30.
Panathinaikos gave their guests from Slovenia absolutely no chance to come back after halftime, clamping down with absolutely suberb defense around the big lead. Besides, Bodiroga was back, and his 9 points in the quarter almost outdid Olimpija, which managed 14. Rogers added his shots to the party and the Greens closed the third quarter with their biggest lead yet, 67-44. After 30 minutes of trouble, it seemed obvious even to Olimpija that it couldn't come back and steal the win, even though Panathinaikos loosened its defense in the fourth period and gave the Slovenians the opportunity to cut the lead to 16, at 81-65. But by then, there were only two minutes left, the Greens could already be said to have rebounded splendidly from their opening-week defeat.
Thursday, March 7, 2002
Vassilis Skountis, Athens