A champion stood its ground but a challenger announced its bid to make noise in the future when Panathinaikos struggled to a 65-63 home win against Union Olimpija to finish first in Group B on Thursday. Olimpija had a shot to win, but its three-pointer near the buzzer didn't fall, so the defending Euroleague champs from Athens finished 11-3 in their group and will avoid other group winners in the Top 16. Those others - Benetton, CSKA and Barcelona - might want to avoid Olimpija, which ended up in third place at 9-5 after losing a tiebreak for second with Tau Ceramica due to an 0-2 deficit in their head-to-head series. The fans in Athens saw a thriller Thursday to end the regular season. Fragiskos Alvertis hit the game-winning baseline turnaround in the final minute among his 12 points for the Greens. George Kalaitzis led the winners with 14 points and Jaka Lakovic added 11. True to its diversity and depth, Olimpija had no single player reach double-digit points, a rarity indeed. A total of 11 players scored however, with Petar Dujmovic and Vladimir Boisa leading the way with 8 each.
Union Olimpija managed to create major problems for Panathinaikos from the very first moment of the match. Both teams started the game without a typical center and tried to run. Despite the absence of Josko Poljak, the Slovenians dominated under the boards and they had the opportunity to grab the offensive rebounds, too. Panathinaikos made 3 consecutive turnovers at the beginning of the game, as a result of Olimpija's good zone press defense, which was combined with an excellent passing game on offense. Rodney Buford gave the Greens a three-point lead, 8-5, but Olimpija made a 0-6 run to an 8-11 advantage Then Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic decided to change the philosophy of his team by calling Giorgos Kalaitzis a Darryll Middleton from the bench. Both helped their team to play better defense and to take needed rebounds, so Panathinaikos answered with a 6-0 partial to take the lead at 14-11. Both teams committed many personal fouls already, such that most of the early points were on free throws. A third foul on Stipe Modric didn't prevent Olimpija from finishing up with a 1-8 run to lead by 5 points,15-19, at the end of the first quarter.
By the beginning of the second period, Pantahinaikos put much more energy on the floor and thanks to Kalaitzis, who made his best game in the season, managed not only to cut the margin, but to build a double digit gap. Kalaitzis tied the game, 19-19, and the Greens run a 9-0, good for a five points elad, 24-19. Marino Bazdaric hit a three pointer, for 24-23 and Ratko Varda tied the game,26-26, with 1 for 2 free throws, but Olimpija didn¿t follow the tempo of Panathinaikos. The Slovenians tried to stop the Greens, with a zone defense, but firstr Kalaitzis and then Kutluay scored from outside, to soar up, for a 10 points, lead, 38-28, fifty seconds before the end of the second period. During the whole quarter Obradovic prefered to play with Buford or Alvertis at the power forward position, in order to find good shots opportunities and to protect its defense from the fastbreaks.The end of the half time found Panathinaikos 38-30 ahead. Giorgos Kalaitzis had already scored 14 points, followed by Kutluay with 7 points. Vlado Iliefski led all Olimpija¿s scorers, with just 6 points.
Olimpija was too tough to die, however. The Slovenians took advantage of the defensive mistakes committed by Panathinaikos and hit consecutive fast breaks in a 0-10 run to tie the game, 38-38, with a slam dunk by Marino Bazdaric. Kalaitzis was out due to an injury, but Fragiskos Alvertis and Jaka Lakovic, who returned at point guard, sank consecutive three-pointers to give the Greens the oxygen they needed, 46-40. At the same time, both Modric and Ilievski committed their fourth personal fouls. Three minutes before the end of the third period, Obradovic decided to play with a typical center, Lazaros Papadopoulos, to give some rest to Middleton. Olimpija stayed always competitive and thanks to the athletic skills and the focus of its players didn¿t allowed Panathinaikos to feel calm, as Pero Dujmovic scored 5 consecutive points and cut the margin to 48-45. At the end of the third period Paanthinaikos was still 3 points ahead, 50-47.
The fourth quarter started with a surprise, as Obradovic decided to play with Lakovic and four tall guys. It didn¿t work. Led by Goran Jurak and Jasmin Hukic, Olimpija ran off another 10 unanswered points to a 50-55 lead just 7 minutes before the end of the game. Papadopoulos, who missed some easy shots, returned on the bench, while Middleton came back and immediately drew Jurak's fifth personal foul. The Greens continued to play with just one perimeter player, Olimpija answered with a zone defense and the game was a thrilling one. Panathinaikos had the next run, 9-0 to a 59-55 lead, thanks to a three-pointer scored by Alvertis. Hukic sank a three-pointer in response for 59-58, but Alvertis insisted on another for 61-58. The fourth triple in a row came off the hand of Roberts Stelmahers to tie it for Olimpija, 61-61. Buford gave the Greens a new advantage, 63-61, just 2 minutes, 30 seconds before the end, but Ilievski stole the ball and scored on a fastbreak to tie once again. Vladimir Boisa then missed a shot, but Alvertis didn't. The captain of Panathinaikos took the ball in the low post for a turnaround jump shot that proved the game-winning shot at 65-63. Ilievski committed an offensive foul, his fifth, but after the Greens failed to score, Boisa took one last shot, a triple to win it all. It missed, but a taste of the drama ahead in the Top 16 was had by all in Athens on Thursday.
Thursday, February 13, 2003
Vassilis Skountis, Athens