Defending Euroleague champion Panathinaikos kept up its drive to clinch first place in Group B on Wednesday when it stopped Unicaja 69-75 on the road in Malaga, Spain. Both teams had already advanced to the Top 16, but that didn't stop them from putting un a show that included Unicaja coming all the way back from 16 points down late in the third quarter to take the lead with 2 minutes to play. Then, however, the Greens settled it with a game-closing 2-11 run in which a three-pointer by Antonis Fotsis was the breakthrough shot. The victory improved Panathinaikos to 10-3, not yet enough to clinch first place in Group B. Panathinaikos, playing without Arriel McDonald, got 13 points from Rodney Buford, 12 from Jaka Lakovic and 10 each from Kostas Tsartsaris, Ibrahim Kutluay and Fragiskos Alvertis to win. Playing a second consecutive game without Milan Gurovic, Unicaja fell to 7-6 and stays in fourth place. The hosts were led by Ademola Okulaja with 12 points, while Adam Wojcik added 11 and Louis Bullock 10.
It didn't seem like an extraordinary amount of defense was going to be on display as Unicaja sped to an 8-4 lead on 4 points by Okulaja and Rodney Buford answered with the same amount for the Greens. The first three-pointer of the game, by Ibrahim Kutluay, set the stage for the Greens to take their first lead on a Lazaros Papadopoulos jumper at 8-9. The big center then dunked for 8-11 and the visitors started to ease away. But nothing would come easy in this half, especially in terms of scoring. Moustapha Sonko chipped in a couple points for Unicaja but already the empty minutes were mounting. The points were so scarce that when they came in bunches at the end, with Kostas Tsartsaris and Kutluay combining for 6 points in the final 2 minutes, those were good enough for a 13-19 Panathinaikos lead at the first break.
The low-scoring trend of the first quarter got even heavier in the second. Okulaja was able to get a couple baskets for Unicaja and Fragiskos Alvertis added a triple for the Greens as the teams reached the middle of the quarter with 23-27 on the scoreboard. Unicaja was playing its man-to-man defense with as much grit as the masters now, and when Sonko canned a free throw the hosts were as close as 24-27. But as at the end of the first quarter, Panathinaikos had the last say again. First, the elder statesman Darryl Middleton turned on his defender for a jump hook. Then Jaka Lakovic drove past Bullock for a sweet layup plus free throw. Then Lakovic ran a pick-and-roll, passing to Papadopoulos for a layup plus free throw. The guests had taken control at 25-35, but one shot remained. Sonko lifted it from halfcourt and it swished through the net to give Unicaja some hope despite a 28-35 halftime deficit.
Bullock and Stephane Risacher scored early in the third quarter as Unicaja scrambled back to 34-39, but then the offense stopped cold for the home team. At the other end, Buford fed Tsartsaris on the break and Lakovic looped in a triple for a new twin-figure lead, 34-46, for Panathinaikos. When Buford added his own shot from the arc a minute later, the lead had hit 34-50 and Unicaja needed a timeout. Whatever coach Bozidar Maljkovic said in that huddle worked, because his team came out rebounding and running. Bullock finished two fastbreaks and Risacher another in an 8-0 run that put the scoreboard at 42-50. Alvertis ended that with a triple from the corner, however, and Panathinaikos was able to take a 44-54 advantage into the final quarter.
The Greens were ahead by 12 points, 46-58, when the Unicaja comeback was started with an innocent looking Wojcik free throw. But next the Polish veteran was finishing off a fastbreak, then hitting a jumper. Now, Berni Rodriguez joined in, putting back a rebound and then stealing to feed Okulaja for a fastbreak slam. Rodriguez drew Lakovic's fourth foul, a charge, and then Bullock rebounded his own missed three and put it back to cut the lead to 57-51 with 5 minutes to play. Another Rodriguez steal ended with a Wojcik dunk. Wojcik scored again before Rodriguez did the honors of putting Unicaja back in front at 65-64 with 2:10 to play. The run had reached 19-6 at that point, but that would be the end of the party for Unicaja. Lakovic hit 2 free throws and Buford drove the baseline for a layup before Fotsis settled the matter with a three-pointer from the top. It was 67-71 with seconds left and Tsartsaris added the insurance free throws to give Panathinaikos its 10th win, as many as any other team in the Euroleague.
Wednesday, February 5, 2003