With yet another stirring defensive effort, Efes Pilsen became the first Group C team to advance to the Top 16 as it shut down super-hot Olympiacos for a 61-52 home win in Istanbul on Thursday. By holding Olympiacos to just 11 points in the last 16 minutes of the game, Efes extended its own winning streak to five while stopping that of the Reds at the same number. Efes is now 9-2, two wins ahead of its closest Group C rivals, and can concentrate on claiming first place over the last three regular season games. Olympiacos lost its first game under new coach Dragan Sakota and fell to 5-6, which will require a new streak to make the Top 16. The Reds played without their second-best scorer, Giorgios Diamantopoulos, who was suspended by the club for his behavior toward Sakota in a Greek League game last weekend. Efes vaulted into the Top 16 behind a prime-time performance from forward Ermal Kuqo, who posted a double-double of 26 points and 13 rebounds. Antonio Granger added 12 points for the winners, who played again without big men Niksa Prkacin and Kaya Peker. Olympiacos was led by Panagiotis Liadelis, who had 22 points and 9 rebounds, while Goran Jurak added 10 points.
Kuqo gave a sign of his big night to come by dropping the first basket, a layup, for Efes, while a response came soon from Boris Gorenc of Olympiacos. The two teams continued coolly, each matching the other's points and looking for a way to take control of the match. Jurak gave the visitors their first lead at 8-10 more than halfway through the quarter, and a minute later added another basket to put the Reds up 8-12. Granger had committed 2 fouls in just 7 minutes, so Efes added Omer Onan to power up the defense. But a third foul came then on Goran Nikolic, too, and in the absence of Peker and Prkacin, foul trouble looked serious now for the hosts. It took Efes guard Ender Arslan's speedy inside drive for a layup at the buzzer to keep the Olympiacos lead down to 18-19 after 10 minutes.
At the beginning of the second quarter but Efes seemed to play better after having 1.97-meter Alper Yilmaz play small at power forward in place of Nikolic. His defensive work on Evangelos Sklavos helped Efes get some fastbreaks until a pair of three-pointers, first by Onan and then by Granger, sent the hosts sailing ahead, 28-23, after 15 minutes. But Milan Tomic then joined the action for Olympiacos, and he hit 2 straight three-pointers himself to turn around the scoreboard just as quickly, with the Reds ahead 28-29 after 17 minutes. Olympiacos was enjoying an advantage under the basket ever since Efes had sent Nikolic to the bench, but even with consecutive offensive rebounds, the Reds could only add another basket to their total and thus had a minimum lead, 30-31, at halftime.
After having led all scorers with 10 points in the first half, Liadelis added a three-pointer and an inside drive while Dalibor Bagaric scored his first basket, all good for a 2-7 Olympiacos run to a 32-38 advantage after 23 minutes. Efes needed to react and did, with a game-changing 9-0 blast that featured points from Trajan Landgon and Kuqo, resulting in a 41-38 lead for the home side. Christos Harissis answered with a triple to tie for the guests, but Kuqo scored inside again to retake the lead for Efes at 43-41. At that point, 5 minutes remained in the third quarter, but neither team would score much . Kuqo kept Efes afload with 4 more points, but those were offset by Jurak and Gorenc as the hosts clung to a 47-45 lead after 30 minutes. Kuqo had 12 of his team's 17 points in the quarter.
Neither team scored for 2 minutes to start the final quarter, until Granger added 2 free throws to the Efes lead. Then the drought continued on both sides for three more minutes, when it became a question of which team would resume scoring in time to try to steal the game. Kuqo answered that with a layup to put Efes up by 6 points, 51-45. Olympiacos remained scoreless for a total of 5 minutes, 37 seconds until Liadelis made free throws for 51- 47. After Langdon got his fifth foul, long-injured point guard Kerem Tunceri came on to finish the game for Efes against an Olympiacos zone defense. It stopped Efes inside, but Granger punished the zone with a three-pointer for a 54-49 scoreboard and then drove for a layup and the biggest lead yet, 56-49. When Kuqo followed with a basket-plus-foul, the lead was 10 points, 59-49, and with little time left, no team could hope to rally against this year's Efes defense. The Top 16 was in the bag now, so the Istanbul fans could start thinking about bigger goals for the future.
Thursday, January 29, 2004