AEK put its name solidly among the contenders in Group B when it rang out 2004 with a resounding 91-79 victory over visiting Winterthur FC Barcelona in Athens on Thursday. The victory was AEK's third in a row, fourth in five games, and lifted it to a 4-4 record, tied with Barcelona for third place. Center Sandro Nicevic, whose return from injury coincides with AEK's win streak, broke the game open with 15 points in the second quarter on his way to 23 for the game. When Barcelona got close late in the game, Nikos Hatzis buried 4 three-pointers in the last 5 minutes to make sure of the AEK victory. Hatzis finished with 18 points for the winners, while Nikos Zisis added 12 and Toby Bailey 10. Barcelona, playing without injured big men Gregor Fucka and Roberto Dueñas, got 19 points from Dejan Bodiroga and 13 from Juan Carlos Navarro. A running three-pointer off the glass by Zisis at the buzzer allowed AEK to tie Barcelona's winning margin from their first game, also. AEK had not beaten Barcelona in their five previous meetings.
Having spent four seasons in Athens for Panathinaikos, Bodiroga showed he comfortable playing in Greece again by scoring the games first basket. In the absence of starters Dueñas and Fucka, Barcelona filled the middle with big Marc Gasol, who quickly pulled a couple offensive rebounds and drew as many fouls. Scoring 4 points on free throws, Barcelona took the early lead 6-2 before Toby Bailey fired in a long-range three-pointer for AEK, to make it 6-5. Both teams had difficulties setting up their offenses and missed some open shots from the perimeter. A basket-plus-foul combination by Bailey tied the score 10-10. After Jordi Trias tipped in a rebound in traffic, Hatzis blasted a triple from the corner to gave AEK the lead for the first time, 13-12. That sparked a 10-0 run in which Zisis finished a pair of fastbreaks aind Michail Pelekanos added his own three-point shot for a 20-12 difference. A pair of free throws each by Bodiroga and Roger Grimau, just off the bench, gave Barcelona relief as the first quarter ended 20-16 in AEK's favore.
Nicevic was the new face in AEK's lineup for the second quarter, and he wasted no time in becoming the main man on the court. It took AEK's 2.10-meter center just 73 seconds on the floor to score 7 points, including a solid jump shot and a great pivot move, and give the hosts a sudden double-digit difference, 27-16. Grimau answered back in the paint, but Nicevic went inside again and earned 2 free throws, which he made. The absence of Fucka and Dueñas was evident for Barcelona, as forwards Christian Drejer and Trias shared the center spot with the teenaged Gasol. As a result, Nicevic took over the game, scoring 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting before the quarter finished. Barcelona, meanwhile, seemed to only score from the free throw line. A fastbreak dunk by Quadre Lollis produced the highest AEK lead at 37-22 and earned a cheer from the home crowd. Barcelona got extra points from Rodrigo De la Fuente and Gasol down the stretch but still faced a 46-33 margin entering the locker rooms at halftime.
Zisis popped in an easy layup to make it 51-33, the highest difference yet, soon after the break. Grimau's jumper and De la Fuente's layup cut the margin to 14, but quickly Zisis nailed a triple to make it difficult for Barcelona. Giannis Bouroussis assisted Nicevic near the basket, where the big men of AEK continued to dominate. Gasol had some nice moments on the offensive side, while Bodiroga tried to inspire his teammates. Indeed, Barcelona used its hugely improved passing and transition game to trim the difference to 9 points. Navarro, Gasol and Drejer scored in that run to keep Barcelona in the game, as the third quarter ended with AEK ahead 61-52, its smallest difference since the first period.
A great fadeaway jumper by Bodiroga made it 63-56 as Barcelona threatened a comeback. Drejer made it a five-point game, 63-58, but Pelekanos, just back from injury, added a big three on the shot-clock buzzer to set Galatsi Olympic Hall jumping as AEK stood ahead 66-58. Bodiroga answered back from the line, Nicevic connected with a long range jumper and Navarro added 2 free throws. Now it was time for AEK's leader to step up: Hatzis nailed 2 big triples in exciting fashion to bring the difference in double digits 74-64, before Lollis slammed to make things even more difficult for Barcelona. Bailey answered a Drejer triple in exact the same way, Lollis dunked once more and Hatzis chipped in another triple to make it 84-69. Hatzis fired in 2 more three-pointers, including an incredible off-balance at the buzzer that equalized the difference of the 12 points that AEK had lost at Barcelona to seal an important 91-79 victory, the fourth in five games for AEK.
Thursday, December 23, 2004