Panathinaikos opened difficult Group G in style and got revenge for a Top 16 ousting last season by running away to an 81-63 home win over Partizan Belgrade on Thursday in Athens. After trailing for the game's first 25 minutes, the Greens blasted off for a 31-15 finish over the last quarter-and-a-half to send their first message in the group. Nikola Pekovic was a force of nature against his former team, collecting 26 points that included great 14-for-15 free throw shooting. Vassilis Spanoulis was the only other double-digit scorer for Panathinaikos, with 15 points. The Greens withstood blistering three-point shooting by Partizan early in the game and shut the visitors down when it mattered most. Novica Velickovic led Partizan with 13 points, while Stephane Lasme followed with 12 and Uros Tripkovic with 10. The teams were meeting for the first time since Partizan upset and eliminated Panathinaikos from the playoffs in the last Top 16 game of 2007-08.
The game got underway with Slavko Vranes welcoming his former teammate, Pekovic, with a rejection, and soon after, Partizan rushed ahead 0-5 behind a triple and a layup on the fastbreak by Aleksandar Rasic. Pekovic responded with a power move inside, but Rasic bettered him with another bomb from downtown. After a Drew Nicholas scored for the hosts, Milenko Tepic joined Partizan's three-point party to give the guests a quick 4-11 advantage. The hosts anchored their offensive plays in the paint and Pekovic did not falter, contributing 4 points, however, in the other end Velickovic sank a triple to keep Partizan in charge, 8-14. Pekovic responded with free throws and then Mike Batiste came off the bench to score inside before Spanoulis tied it 14-14 for Panathinaikos after a steal. Still, Partizan was deadly from downtown, having hit 6 of 7 three-pointers after 8 minutes by the time long-distance strikes by Velickovic and Petar Bozic stretched the lead to 14-20. Panathinaikos unleashed a full-court press, but the guests did not panic and Bozic fired in another triple to make it 16-23. It wasn't long though before the Greens bounced back thanks to Spanoulis, who spearheaded a 6-0 run to close the gap, 22-23, at the end of the first quarter.
Velickovic ended a couple of silent minutes to start the second quarter with another triple. After Pekovic muscled his way inside for 5 points to pull Panathinaikos within 27-28, Tripkovic kept up the Partizan marksmanship with a triple of his own. Antonis Fotsis copied him, but Velickovic and Lasme rebuilt Partizan's lead to 30-35. The pace of the game was now frenetic, as both teams were eager to step on the gas and score easy points on the break. Panathinaikos kept close at Partizan's heels behind layups by Dimitris Diamantidis and Stratos Perperoglou, nonetheless the Partizan youngsters kept their composure. First, Tripkovic hit a jumper and then Lasme swatted away Perperoglou's layup before hitting his own free throws as Partizan held onto a gutsy 36-41 half-time advantage.
Partizan came out for the second half determined to keep Panathinaikos in catch-up mode, as indicated by Lasme's flashy one-handed dunk on the break. Fotsis cut the lead to 39-43 with a triple, however, and few moments later Spanoulis made an off-balanced jumper to make it a two-point game. Tepic revived Partizan by blasting a triple from the corner, but Panathinaikos soon picked up defensive intensity -Dusan Kecman was a key factor- and Spanouls unlocked Partizan's defense with his slaloms to tie the game and bring the crowd to its feet. Vranes tipped a ball in to put Partizan ahead once more, but another jumper by Spanouls proved Panathinaikos meant business. Midway through the third quarter, Pekovic scored an offensive rebound and the free throw that came with it to give Panathinaikos its first lead, 50-48. Tripkovic and Velickovic came out empty in the subsequent possessions, unlike Perperoglou, who added 2 free throws at 52-48. Partizan seemed to have cooled off offensively, but their rare ability to gobble up rebounds allowed the guests to stay close, 55-52, after 30 minutes.
Pekovic hit free throws to open the fourth-quarter scoring before Sarunas Jasikevicius drove the baseline for a scoop shot that boosted the margin to 59-52. Cedomir Vitkovac answered back for Partizan, but Pekovic forced his frontcourt opponents to bow behind his low-post brilliance, putting back his fourth offensive rebound to make it 61-54. Diamantidis put on a defensive clinic, first stealing from Tepic and then blocking Vitkovac's shot. To top it off, he sank a triple to forge a double-digit lead, 66-55, with 5:52 remaining. Out of a timeout, Lasme broke the ice for Partizan but Kecman punished his former team from beyond the arc. Partizan was clearly struggling against the passionate Panathinaikos defense and soon Pekovic's free throws widened the gap to 72-57. The rest was about padding the difference as Panathinaikos looked ahead to potential point differences that might come into play in a tough group.
Thursday, January 29, 2009