Panathinaikos held off a spirited charge from Efes Pilsen to record a 74-65 win and return to the fight for a ticket to the Quarterfinal Playoffs. The defending champs remained perfect at home this season and improved to 2-2 in Group D, tying Partizan Igokea for second place. The Greens host group leader Montepaschi Siena next week and visit Belgrade for the Top 16 finale. Meanwhile Efes, whose roster was slashed after three players were released for refusing to travel with the team last week, dropped to 1-3 and sees its quarterfinal hopes all but eliminated. The only good news for Efes, which hosts Partizan next week, was that it does still hold a potential head-to-head tiebreaker, since it won their first meeting by 10. Scoonie Penn, Andre Hutson and Kenny Gregory combined for all the points in a 6-16 opening run that helped Efes to a 15-20 edge after 10 minutes. Demos Dikoudis gave the Greens their first lead, 24-23, but Penn and an outstanding Hutson pushed Efes to regain the lead, 31-38, at halftime. Mike Batiste and Nikos Hatzivrettas allowed Panathinaikos to build a 54-46 edge, but Ermal Kuqo and Gregory ignited a 0-12 run that put Efes back ahead, 54-58, with six minutes to go. Batiste scored twice in an 8-0 run as the hosts regained the lead for good and Vassilis Spanoulis and Dikoudis added key baskets as Panathinaikos wrapped up a tough win. Batiste led the Greek champs with 20 points, Spanoulis added 15, Dikoudis 12 and Dimitris Diamantidis finished with 11 points 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Hutson paced Efes with 21 points and 8 rebounds, while Gregory added 12.
Early on in the game, Hutson dominated against veteran Fragiskos Alvertis to score 4 quick points and ignite a 0-6 run that forced an urgent timeout less than two minutes into the game. Sani Becirovic slashed to the basket and got the scoreboard rolling for the Greens, however Hutson was hot from the perimeter and threw in another long jumper for a 4-10 lead. Then both Gregory and Penn shined from downtown to forge a double-digit advantage for the guests, partly because scoring from beyond the arc was an uphill battle for Panathinaikos – 0 for 6 from downtown at that point. Still, the hosts provided some lock-down defense that stifled Efes Pilsen and soon an aggressive Spanoulis came off the bench to spearhead the counter-offensive. He first drove to the basket and then he found Batiste for a two-handed monster dunk that brought the massive crowd to its feet and pulled Panathinaikos within 15-20 after 10 minutes of play.
Entering the second quarter, Spanoulis converted a three-point play to tie the game, but smooth-shooter Serkan Erdogan gunned a triple for a 20-23 Efes advantage. It was obvious though now that Panathinaikos was shaking off a slow start and it wasn’t long before Dikoudis gave the hosts their first lead, 24-23. However, instead of folding, head coach David Blatt’s fearless gang did not back down. Hutson drilled a pair of baskets and Gregory soared for a thunder dunk as Efes swung the momentum back their way. Spanoulis answered with a gutsy layup, but the guests found some rhythm and an open triple by Kerem Gonlum allowed the guests to build a 31-38 halftime lead.
The second half commenced with Diamantidis finally redeeming the Greens from their three-point shooting blues. With the score at 36-42, Panathinaikos found a go-to-guy in Dikoudis. The experienced forward was effective from inside and beyond the arc, leaving Blatt with no other choice but to call timeout in order to regroup his forces. Still Efes could not clamp down on defense, as the basket looked now like an ocean for the Greens. A triple by Hatzivrettas widened the gap to 50-46, however, once again Efes was too passionate to surrender without a fight and neither the wild crowd nor Panathinaikos’s swarming defense fazed the guests. Kuqo and Gregory provided a much-needed spark from three-point land and the guests stayed close on Panathinaikos’ heels, 54-52, with one period to go.
The hosts went scoreless over the next four minutes and Ender Arslan triggered a 0-6 run to turn the game topsy-turvy at 54-58. Panathinaikos was struggling offensively, yet Hatzivrettas unleashed a decisive buzzer-beating triple to recharge the crowd and boost his teammates’ confidence. Then Batiste came up big, dominating in the paint, and together with Spanoulis, who created havoc on Efes’s defense with his ability to drive to the basket, they built a 67-62 for the hosts. Efes was gasping for breath now and Gonlum managed to trim the lead to 67-64, only to be bettered by Dikoudis who upped the ante with a three-point play to make it 70-64. Could the guests pull any late heroics out of their sleeve? Batiste thought otherwise and helped Panathinaikos muscle its way to a 74-65 lead. However, with the clock ticking away, Batiste – clearly the man of the match – missed a fadeaway jumper that would have given Panathinaikos the upper hand on point-differential against Efes.
Thursday, March 6, 2008