Panathinaikos made a big-city move on Thursday by coming from behind to smoke rival AEK Athens 66-73 and stay on the heels of arch-rival Olympiakos in Group G. The return of point guard Damir Mulamoverovic paid dividends for the Greens as his three-pointer with under 3 minutes to play let the visitors breathe after a long and hard-fought comeback. AEK had led by seven at the half, but the Panathinaikos defense clamped down, keeping the home team from any more scoring runs until the final minute, when the outcome was already clear. Dejan Bodiroga was the catalyst again for Panathinaikos with 21 points and Darryl Middleton came up big with 19. J.R. Holden had 21 for AEK, including a pair of last-minute three-pointers that cut the Panathinaikos lead to 3 with 16 seconds left. The Greens sealed the win at the line however and now are 2-1 in Group G, one step behind Olympiakos (3-0), which won on the road at Union Olimpija (0-3). AEK, which falls to 1-2, also got 12 points from Mikalis Kakiouzis and 11 each from Chris Carr and Demos Dikoudis.
During the first quarter, Giorgos Kalaitzis played perfect defense on Holden and that was the key point that helped Panathinaikos take an early lead. In the early going, AEK couldn't manage to score from outside, as its first 14 points all came from inside players. The Greens played with two power forwards, Darryl Middleton and Giannis Giannoulis, and showed more offensive balance while rushing ahead. A three-pointer by Kalaitzis made it 8-15 in the seventh minute. Now, however, the entrance of Kakiouzis for Nikos Hatzis gave AEK some more creativity and allowed the home team cut the margin to 16-18 by the end of the first period. Middleton and Demos Dikoudis led their teams with 8 points each, but conversely Ibrahim Kutluay and Holden remained scoreless.
Just after the beginning of the second quarter, AEK came up big. Holden escaped from Kalaitzis to score his first basket on a fastbreak and tie the game 20-20. But the real surprise was Chris Carr, who showed the potential AEK had signed him for by hitting a crucial three-pointer, good enough to give AEK a five-point lead, 27-22, and to oblige Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic to call Damir Mulaomerovic from the bench. Carr sank another big two-point shot, which Holden followed with a three-pointer to give AEK its first double-digit margin, 34-24. Indeed, AEK was on a 26-9 run since Panathinaikos had held that early seven-point lead. But now the Greens had lost their defensive spirit and looked confused on offense. Jim Bilba was offering AEK versatility and defensive pressure, not allowing Middleton to score as he is used to do. The Yellows maintained their edge with some outside scoring and at the end of the first half were 7 points ahead, 35-28.
Despite foul trouble - Dikoudis has committed his third personal foul and Carr his fourth - AEK continued to control the game at the beginning of the third quarter, but that control did not last. Dejan Bodiroga would cut the margin to 2 points, 35-33, and Middleton did the same to make it 43-41, but missed a free throw which should have cut it more. With 1:25 left in the quarter, however, Middleton cut the margin, to 1 point, 47-46, and then he tied it with a free throw at 47-47. But 50 seconds still remained, and Holden used those to launch his own three-pointer. It landed safely, bringing AEK ahead 50-47 with just 10 minutes to go in a hot Greek derby.
Frangiskos Alvertis hit a three-pointer to tie the game, 50-50, Jim Bilba answered the same way, 53-50, but it was Panathinaikos's turn to control the situation. AEK didn't have the opportunity to run in the open court and the Greens took advantage in the half-court to post a 6-0 run for a 53-56 lead. That included the very first basket of Kutluay, while Middleton and Bodiroga were off the floor. Five minutes before the end, Bodiroga returned to give Panathinaikos a five-point lead, 54-59. Dikoudis, Bilba, Betts and Carr had already committed four personal fouls each, but the main problem AEK had to solve was on offense. Panathinaikos took advantage of many mistakes, missed shots and free throws made by AEK, and Mulaomerovic emerged as the clutch player. The Croatian guard sank the play of the game, a three-pointer, which gave Panathinaikos a six-point lead, 58-64, with 2:25 remaining. Bodiroga pushed the margin to 8 points, 58-66. Two consecutive three-pointers by Holden gave AEK hope at 66-69, just 14 seconds before the end, but Panathinaikos stayed cool at the foulline to win 66-73 and maintiain its hopes to make it to Bologna.
Thursday, March 21, 2002
Vassilis Skountis, Athens