The Euroleague was assured that a new team will be called champion this season after Panathinaikos bowed out of Final Four contention with a 92-73 Group E loss to previously winless Ulker on Wednesday in Istanbul. The loss also meant the end to a streak of three consecutive Final Fours for Panathinaikos - including Euroleague titles in 2000 and 2002 and second place in the SuproLeague of 2001. The old was swept out by the new in one sense: Teenage center Zaur Pachulia was the main man for Ulker as he put up 26 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 assists while stepping in for regular season MVP Joseph Blair, who did not play. Melvin Booker added 20 points and Virginius Praskevicius 11 for Ulker, which established double-digit leads in the second quarter and rarely lost them the rest of the way. Ulker (1-4) grabbed its first victory in its last home game, while Panathinaikos fell to 2-3, too far behind to catch group leader Montepaschi when those two meet in Athens next week. Jaka Lakovic led the Greens with 13 points, while Fragiskos Alvertis, Arriel McDonald and Antonis Fotsis scored 12 each.
Virginijus Praskevicius inaugurated the scoring from downtown for a 3-0 Ulker start. Pachulia, starting in place of Blair, added his first shot for a 5-4 lead, but the first Panathinaikos triple, by Fotsis, gave the Greens a 5-7 advantage. Harun Erdenay joined the battle with 2 straight baskets for Ulker, however, and then Pachulia retook the lead for the hosts at 11-9 after 5 minutes. Even without Blair, Ulker clearly dominated the battle under the boards at both ends. It was at that point, however, that the game changed completely. Both teams went scoreless for some minutes. The tough defenses forced bad shots all around, many of them from the 6.25 line. In the last 2 minutes of the period, Praskevicius and Erdenay broke through for 5 points to push Ulker ahead again, 18-11. Kostas Tsartsaris was able to score a late layup for the guests that made it 18-13 after the first 10 minutes.
Fragiskos Alvertis got the second quarter started more offensively with a layup for the Greens. Soon, Jaka Lakovic pulled Panathinaikos within a single point again, 18-17, in minute 13. The offenses seemed to stall, but first Melvin Booker, from the arc, and then Miljan Goljovic uncorked Ulker's points for a 23-19 home advantage. Despite a Tsartsaris dunk for 23-21, Ulker closed its defense even more, and started a scoring run with a three-point play by Pachulia, 26-21. But that was just the trigger of a 15-5 blitz by the hosts. To that point, everything was up for grabs, as both teams had more offensive rebounds than defensive. Despite that fact, Panathinaikos didn't advance on the scoreboard, while Ulker kept on running until 2 Pachulia free throws earned the first double-digit lead, 36-26. Erdenay bumped that up to 38-26 entering the last minute before the break.After Darryl Middleton, despite three fouls, combined with Alvertis to cut the deficit to 38-31, Pachulia finished the half with a free throw for a 39-31 Ulker edge.
The third quarter started in the same fashion as the first, as Praskevicius nailed the triple for 42-31. Otherwise, poor scoring continued with misses even from the free throw line. Lakovic tried to break the tough defense with his jumper for 42-33, but soon Booker fired from downtown as the Ulker lead climbed into double digits again. It kept climbing, to 52-37, as Booker and Pachulia took turns throwing in shots from outside and inside, respectively. Panathinaikos wasn't able to keep up. Greens head coach Zeljko Obradovic didn't find the anti-Pachulia, neither with Lazaros Papadopoulos nor with Tsartsaris. An eighth turnover for the Greens was just another symptom that something was not working for them in this second half. Booker nailed another triple for 57-40, and only 5 last points late in the quarter by Ibrahim Kutluay and Fotsis got Panathinaikos within 15 points, 62-47, after 30 minutes.
In the last quarter, the worst expectations for the guests were fulfilled. Booker kept in charge from the backcourt as the hosts maintained the lead over 10 points, even though the worst minutes for Ulker coincided with the absence of Pachulia from the parquet. Panathinaikos climbed back to 66-53 but that was as close as the champs would get. A huge Pachulia did what he wanted in the paint when he came back, thanks to his physical superiority, and just kept on adding points to his particular column, scoring his 16th for 71-55. Papadopoulos left the court fouled out and then Pachulia's festival became even bigger. Another triple by Booker made it 78-59, and Pachulias's 20th point earned Ulker the first lead over 20 points of the night, 80-59, breaking the game open. As much as the last minutes were bitter for a champion watching its title defense end, they were happy for the fans in Istanbul, enjoying the first Top 16 win of their team.
Wednesday, April 9, 2003