The battle of MVP candidates came out exactly even, but the Group D war in Istanbul on Thursday between Ulker and Partizan went to the hosts in the form of an 84-74 victory they led from the start. Ulker reached the halfway point in the schedule with a 5-2 record, good for exclusive hold on second place behind CSKA Moscow. Ulker's usual array of scoring stars was re-joined by an old favorite, Harun Erdenay, on Thursday, and the combination was too much, even if Euroleague leading scorer Milos Vujanic almost rallied Partizan in the final quarter. Vujanic finished with 33 points, but the guy he is tied with in the MVP race, Ulker center Joseph Blair, put up a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double and they matched index ratings (30) for another week. Blair had plenty accomplices, with Melvin Booker putting up 20 points, Erdenay and Virginius Praskevicius 16 each. For Partizan, who drops to a last-place tie at 2-5, Dusan Kecman added 23 points.
Ulker closed the doors to Partizan's scorers at the outset and the visitors struggled for points through much of the first period. The defensive style of the home side was resolute, while Partizan suffered from the absence of big man Nenad Krstic, out due to a stomach problem. Ulker went to the inside early to establish Blair's game and diversified from there. A Praskevicius three-pointer gave Ulker the its biggest lead of the quarter at 21-12. Blair was up to 8 points by then for Ulker and Vujanic had 6 for Partizan. Then Nenad Canak stepped up for the visitors with consecutive baskets to cut the lead to 23-16 at the end of 10 minutes.
Ulker started the second period as fast as they possibly could, however. Booker and Erdenay turned on the speed in a 10-0 run over 3 minutes that changed the tenor of the game entirely. By the time Kerem Gonlum added an inside basket in the 15th minute, the hosts had managed to double Partizan on the scoreboard, 38-19. Partizan seemed demoralized at that point, as the difference climbed to 22 points with a pair of Gonlum free throws, 42-20. Full-court zone pressure by Partizan in the remaining 4 minutes of the half certainly helped the visitors awaken, but it only served to reduce the margin to 20 points and a halftime score of 49-29.
Partizan had a good start to the third period and realized that it was still capable to get back in the game. Vujanic and Kecman started to score consecutive baskets, among them some skillfull three-pointers, as the deficit was knocked down to 12 points. Another Vujanic three less than 5 minutes into the second half made it 55-43, and when Kecman tipped in a miss the next minute, the Ulker lead was down to just 10, at 55-45. Ulker also had foul problems with Erdenay and Booker, who were stuck on the bench with three each. Partizan now started to come much closer as Canak reduce the differance to 8 points, 55-47. But that's when Ulker woke up from its sleep and understood that the game was not yet finished. Booker and Blair went to work and their points put Ulker back up by double digits, 63-49, at the end of the third period.
Partizan kept fighting to come back and Ulker tried to keep the differance on the same level in the last quarter. Partizan answered the points of the Booker-Erdenay duo with Kecman and Vujanic. Partizan turned to zone defense for 3 minutes in the middle of the quarter, and it was so successful that the visitors were able to lower the deficit to just 5 points, 74-69, on a Vujanic dribe with 4 minutes, 45 seconds remaining. But again Ulker responded, this time with a 7-0 run that lasted a minute-and-a-half. Booker hit a three, Praskevicius scored inside and Haluk Yildirim dunked as the lead shot up again to 81-69 with just over 2 minutes remaining. Partizan had no time left now the fans who saw Ulker lose its opener at home to CSKA could now celebrate a great first half of the season.
Thursday, December 5, 2002