Keeping pace at all costs in a wide open Group A race, Cibona VIP pulled off its first road win of the season in thrilling fashion on Thursday, coming from behind in Athens to win 69-71 over AEK. It was also Cibona's first win under new coach Aleksandar Petrovic, who chose defense for a comeback strategy with his team down by double digits near halftime. Zoran Planinic hit the tying and winning points in the final minute for Cibona, and AEK was left to watch a game-tying putback attempt by Demos Dikoudis fall through just a second after the buzzer. Cibona is now 4.4 and tied for fourth place in Group A. AEK, now 1-7, has to wonder what is wrong, since not even a last-minute change of arena brought it luck. Haris Mujezinovic led all scorers with 18 points for Cibona, while Planinic scored all 14 of his in the second half. Niksa Prkacin added 11 for the winners. Andrew Betts paced AEK with 16 points, Mikalis Kakiouzis added 15 and Nikos Zisis 10.
Ward started the game with an astonishing connection to the basket. The American small forward, whose debut against Skipper was remarkable enough with 36 points, including 7 out of 12 threes, now put 9 almost immediate points in AEK's basket driving Cibona Zagreb to a 8-11 lead midway through the first period. At that moment, the Greek champs started to run the court, and their willingness to finish the fastbreaks led to a 13-13 tie. Then, with Betts tallying points inside and Kakiouzis from deep, an 8-3 AEK run gave the hosts a 21-16 after 9 minutes. One more Betts bucket made it 23-17 after 10 minutes. Betts was up to 8 points and Kakiouzis 7 on a pair of triples. Apart from Ward, only Mujezinovic with 5 points was scoring for Cibona.
Cibona seemed to be in bigger trouble already soon after the second quarter began, as AEK escaped on an 8-2 run led by Betts under the boards to a 31-19 lead. Only Niksa Prkacin, with 4 points, was capable of scoring for Cibona during 4 full minutes. Christos Tapoutos came off the bench for Tau to play great defense on Ward and that was they key for domination by the home team, which was already thinking about how to cover the 14-point margin by which it lost the season opener. With the AEK lead at 33-22, Cibona started to react. Prkacin and Tomislav Ruzic did some damage in the paint. Then, 2 minutes before the half, Slaven Rimac cut the margin to a single point, 33-32, with a big three closing a huge 0-10 run for Cibona. But AEK was ready to answer with 7 straight points, a three-pointer by Nikos Chatzis and two lay ups by Kakiouzis. Nicola Jestratijevic raised the score to 42-32 for AEK, but Prkacin's dunk to led Cibona to the locker room with a handicap of just 8 points, 42-34.
The third quarter was one of high-level defense and low-level scoring, but Cibona managed to turn the game around, scoring 16 points in comparison to 11 for the home team. Mujezinovic in particular had it easy when no one else did, raising his point total to 12 as Cibona stayed close to AEK, 53-50, at the end of 30 minutes. For AEK, the same role was being played by point guard Rodrick Blackney's, who scored all his 7 points in a period when his team was struggling. The comeback tactic by Petrovic was to put his best five defenders out there. At times, the AEK players looked like they were running into walls.
The fourth quarter was made for Planinic. He hit 2 big three-pointers that allowed Cibona to take a short lead, 57-58, early in the quarter. Then Barisa Krasic followed suir with his own triple to give the visitors a 61-64 advantage midway to the finish. For a moment AEK players started to reconsider if it was right or wrong to move from Lamia to Athens to play this game. Cibona's defense was perfectly organized, even if his players confronted problems in offense. As an example of how much defense he demanded, Petrovic had not used Ward since the first period! Nikos Zisis rose up to score 4 crucial points and tie the game 64-64 with 3 minutes left. A Mujezinovic free throw made it 66-67 with 1:30 to go and then Pero Antic came from nowhere for AEK to take back the lead 69-67 with an incredible three. Planinic tied it at 69-69 with a fast execution, then Antic missed the ball and Planinic had a pair of free throws, 14 seconds before the end! He scored both from the line, so AEK had to chose; Go for two or three? Antic missed an open shot, while the sound of the last buzzer found Dikoudis holding the ball in his hands. Even if his follow was nothing but net, it wouldn't count.
Thursday, December 12, 2002
Kostas Sotiriou, Athens