Union Olimpija, a team like any other at the beginning of the season, expecting problems in killer Group B just to make the Top 16, has now joined the list of favorites. To a previous list of victims that included Maccabi, Unicaja and Zalgiris, the Slovenian surprise added another big name on Wednesday night, that of defending Euroleague champion Panathinaikos. This time the fans in Ljubljana were treated to a 77-70 victory, but in truth, the visitors only managed to resist for the first half only, while in the last two quarters Olimpija cruised to the win. As such, Olimpija improves to 5-2 and becomes co-leader of Group B with Tau Ceramica, which lost at Unicaja. Panathianikos drops to 4-3, a tie for third place and a long-term struggle for the Top 16 berths. The winners were led by Jasmin Hukic with 18 points, Marino Bazdaric and Vlado Ilievski added 11 each and Vladimir Boisa and Pero Dujmovic contributed 10 apiece. For Panathinaikos, Antonis Fotsis was the best man with 17 points, Georgios Kalaitzis added 13 and Darrl Middleton bagged 10.
Both coaches started the game with their best fives on court, but the first period had two on name that mattered: defense. In minute 6, the hosts led 6-5. It looked like the players were too tired on offense due to the hard work in defense. In minute 8, the score had only progressed to 9-10, but two straight threes by Ibrahim Kutluay and Fragiskos Alvertis gave life to the game and a 17-19 lead to Panathinaikos. The second period was similar to the first one, with scoring scarce due to more than half the effort being put out on defense. Both teams hit 16 points from the free throw line in the first half. But when it looked like Panathinaikos would take control, it wasted two offensive plays despite a 21-24 advantage in minute 13. The payment for those mistakes was swift, as Hukic nailed a triple as part of an 8-0 run that put the locals in front 29-24. Greens coach Zeljko Obradovic tried to stop the problems with a timeout, but the visitors' problems continued. Ibrahim Kutluay was called his third foul on the next play, then had a technical foul added for arguing. Union Olimpija took advantage with 2 free throws by Stipe Modric and a triple plus foul by Bazdaric - what amounted to a six-point offensive possession. When Josko Poljak added a basket, Olimpija was ahead 37-26. But Olimpija was hardly done. Hukic followed with 2 straight threes that gave him 16 points in the half and his team a 43-28 lead. Then Roberts Stelmahers contributed a bucket for a maximum lead 17 points, 45-28. Olimpijas run ended at 21-4 after 6 minutes, and thought the Greens scored the final 6 points of the half, the hosts remained in charge at 45-34.
Obradovic knew that only defense could help make up the difference, so the teams began the second half as they had the first, locked in a struggle to score. This time, it only lasted a few minutes, until the Greens got the deficit down to single digits at 48-39. Then Olimpija reacted and headed off to more comfortable leads again with a 7-0 run that made it 55-39. The third quarter would end with another three-pointer falling, this by Dujmovic, and the locals holding onto a comfortable 64-46 edge. It was going to be difficult for Olimpija to sustain its effort against a proud champion sure to come back. The same thing had happened in Olimpija's only home loss, to Tau. So now here came Panathinaikos, lowering and lowering the difference until it was 71-61 with 5 minutes left. Kutluay now rose up and buried a shot from way out for 71-64 on the scoreboard. The crowd waited for the champs to go further, but there the damage stopped. A timeout asked by Olimpija coach Tomo Mahoric put a finish to the Panathinaikos splurge. Ilievski lifted the hosts with his only triple of the night and Olimpija waltzed to an easy finish, all the more satisfying because no one would have predicted anything like it two months ago.
Wednesday, December 4, 2002
Ziga Bojc, Ljubljana