Nothing was going to spoil the return of Big Red at soldouut Sporto Hale in Kaunas, Lithuania on Thursday. After a quiet first half in his Euroleague comeback game, the lengendary Arvydas Sabonis started playing like few his size have ever done until Zalgiris Kaunas had a pivotal first-game 80-74 victory over visiting Panathinaikos in lethal Group B. With his team ahead by just one basket at halftime, Sabonis scored 11 of his 15 points in the third quarter to give Zalgiris double-digit leads it guarded the rest of the way. He also finished with a floor-high 9 rebounds. Misha Beric and Dainius Salenga led the winners with 18 points each, while Paulius Jankunis added 12. Panathinaikos, who successfully trapped Sabonis in the first half, was led by Jaka Lakovic and Mike Batiste with 20 points each. Arriel McDonald added 14 for the Greens.
Zalgiris lined up Sabonis for tipoff, but it was another new vet, Beric, who opened the scoring with a three-pointer then added 2 more points against the full-court press as Mike Batiste of Panathinaikos goal-tended. Batiste then legally rejected Dainius Salenga's slam and drew a foul on Sabonis, making both free throws, followed by a slam in the open floor for 5-4 after 4 minutes. Salenga hid behind Sabas for a triple that Jaka Lakovic answered as the guests shot ahead 8-10. Zalgiris looked slow as Batiste added his own triple for a 0-9 Panathinaikos run. After a Zalgiris timeout, Ed Cota and Lakovic traded jump shots to 10-17. Tanoka Beard entered for Sabonis, but Batiste remained unstoppable. Finally, Beric shot again from downtown, Beard added a layup and Salenga tapped in a miss for the hosts to pull Zalgiris within 17-20 after 10 minutes.
Sabonis's first basket came on a put-back for 21-23. But Lakovic proved absolutely fearless, penetrating the Zalgiris defense for a three-point play. Fortunately for the hosts, Bericwas hot too, and his next triple made it 24-26. The action was scintillating as both teams exchanged both great moves and mistakes, the next being triples from Mindaugas Timinskas and Arriel McDonald, before Cota dished to Paulius Jankunas for a 29-29 tie with 4 until the half. Fragiskos Alvertis kept Panathinaikos close now with 5 points himself to balance a slam and a triple by Salenga. At 36-36 in the final minute, Zalgiris was strugglingto score despite grabbing offensive rebounds until Beard finally put the ball in with under 3 seconds left, giving the hosts a small 38-36 edge at the half.
Zalgiris after halftime secured its biggest lead yet, 42-36, as Beard and Cota scored baskets. But Zalgiris faced a big dilemma when Beard commited 2 quick fouls and went to the bench with 4 total. The scare was over quickly, however, as Salenga and Jankunas put the hosts up 47-38. That's when Sabonis joined the fun and soon the run was 14-2 and Zalgiris ahead 52-38. The big guy continued with a three-point play, good for 56-40, through now Beric joined Beard with four fouls. Free throws by Lakovic, a dunk by Kostas Tsartsaris and a fastbreak by Nikos Hatzivrettas were part of a 0-8 Panathinaikos run to within 56-48. Sabonis stepped back on the floor now to stop the slide, and his reverse off-glass shot led to another three-point play. When Cota connected from downtown, Zalgiris was in the clear at 62-50, and after Sabonis added one more basket, the hosts were still up double-digits, 65-54, after 30 minutes.
Lakovic opened the final quarter with a great three-pointer, then McDonald stole from Sabonis for a fastbreak layup and Hatzivrettas struck from downtown for an 0-8 visitors run. Panathinaikos was alive again. By the time Sabonis and Batiste traded points, the gap was still just 3 in favor of Zalgiris, 67-64. It was anybody's game then, but after Jankunas and Beric scored, Zalgiris was up 73-64, where the score remained frozen for a while. A Hatzivrettas fastbreak dunk sparked the Greens, but Salenga's free throw got the lead to 10 points, 76-66, with 2 minutes to go, and the Zalgiris fans could sigh with relief. Only 5 late points by Batiste could reduce the final margin to 6, but by then the return of Sabonis had all of Lithuania smiling.
Thursday, November 6, 2003
Arunas Pakula, Kaunas