The Final Four host city has a team to match its dream! With do-or-die pressure bearing down Thursday, F.C. Barcelona joined the Final Four with a dramatic 79-75 home victory over visiting Union Olimpija to win Group G in the last game of the Top 16. Rodrigo De la Fuente's 2 insurance free throws with 8 seconds left ended a late 2-11 Olimpija run to try to steal the victory and the Final Four berth. Victory gave Barcelona a 5-1 first-place finish in Group G. Olimpija finished 3-3, tied for second with Olympiacos, who suffered an 89-79 road loss at Adecco Asvel. All of Barca's big guns contributed to the victory. Dejan Bodiroga led all scorers with 21 points, Sarunas Jasikevicius added 16, Gregor Fucka 11 and Juan Carlos Navarro 10. For Olimpija, which trailed by 12 points early in the fourth quarter, Vlatko Ilievski had 16, Vladimer Boisa 15, Jasmin Hukic and Goran Jurak 10 each.
The pre-game tension could be cut with a knife both inside and outside Palau Blaugrana, where fans without tickets hung around hoping to get on for a game which was sold out last Saturday. The tension was evident on court, too, as the game started with Jasikevicius commiting a turnover for Barcelona and Olimpija's Josko Poljak getting called for travelling. Gregor Fucka hit the first basket of the game, but Marino Bazdaric replied with a three-point play for Olimpija's first lead, 2-3. The game was really balanced as both teams had good shooting percentages now. Bodiroga show his individual skills with a basket for a 7-5, but Olimpija forward Vladimer Boisa was the main act by that point. He started scoring like mad, 9 points in all, including a triple, as the visitors went ahead 11-12. To that point, 6 of Barcelona's points were from the free throw line, but Jasikevicius changed that by landing back-to-back triples for an 18-16 lead. Barca's show continued from there until the hosts had eight-point lead, 24-16 after an individual play by Juan Carlos Navarro. That had the fans going wild in the stands, but Olimpija would soon quiet them. Led by Goran Jurak, the Slovenian kids climbed back to 24-20. Barcelona coach Svetislav Pesic made constant changes to maintain intensity on court, putting Nacho Rodriguez and Anderson Varejao now, but the gap in the score remained the same until the end of the quarter, 27-23.
The second quarter started well for Barcelona, who scored the first 4 points to go up 31-23 on a jumper by Bodiroga. It looked like an 8-point lead was the ceiling for Barca, however, because Olimpija now blasted the hosts with a 0-9 run. Jurak had the first two buckets, then Jasmin Hukic scored 5 straight points including the bomb from downtown that put the guests ahead 31-32, and sent shockwaves through Palau Blaugrana. Pesic fumed on the bench. Roberto Dueñas broke the spell for the hosts by putting back an offensive rebound that reclaimed the lead at 33-32. But the scoreboard would go back and forth in the next minutes. Jurak had a steal and slammed the ball for a 35-38 Olimpija edge. Both teams started to show clear signs of nervousness in both ends, with a rash of turnovers and steals as both teams ran too much on offense. Amid the untidyness appeared Bodiroga, who calmly lifted his point total to 13 while putting Barca back in the lead at 40-38. An alley-oop completed by Hukic with less than aminute to go, pulled Olimpija within 2 points again, 42-40, but the last basket of the second period would come from Navarro after another turnover by Olimpija. Barcelona clung to a 44-40 advantage after 20 minutes.
After resumption, Bodiroga appeared with a triple and Jasikevicius a jumper for 49-42. Barcelona started to put on a better defense than that of the first half, and the Olimpija players coudn't hurt it. The guests tried again and again from the three-point line, but their 2 of 13 accuracy until then was not good enough to keep up. Jasikevicius raised his point total to 16 to push the lead to 54-45, but Olimpija's guards struck back, Marino Bazdaric with a three-point play and Vlatko Ilievski with a drive, as the visitors climbed back to 54-50. The gap remained for Barcelona, but it rarely exceeded 6 points as Jurak hit twice from the line for 56-52. A perfect assista by Navarro to Patrick Femerling raised "oohs" and "aahs" from the fans, but Petar Dujmovic quieted them from downtown, cutting the deficit to 3 points, 59-56. But Olimpija would not score again in the quarter, and Barcelona took advantage of its strong defense to take a lead that looked already decisive. Bodiroga hit 2 attempts from the line, then Nacho Rodriguez used his experience to pull 2 offensive boards and draw an unsportsmanlike foul from Jurak. The free throws by Rodriguez were enough for a double-digit lead, 66-56, at the end of 30 minutes.
The decisive quarter started better than ever for Barca as De la Fuente scored for a 12-point lead, 68-56. He was also the best defender as Olimpija consistently consumed most of the 24-second clock before getting a shot to fly. Until Hukic appeared again. He started an Olimpija comeback with a pair of triples that made it 70-62. Bodiroga tried to calm things down with his triple and 21st point, 73-62. But that was when the youngsters of Olimpija pulled out their best effort. Their defense worked first, as a minute passed without either team scoring. First, Dujmovic and Fucka exchanged baskets for a 75-64 scoreboard. Then came the 2-11 run that would put Olimpija back in the game, and strongly. A basket by Jasikevicius was offset by 2 free throws from Roberts Stelmahers. Ilievski launched a triple and Hukic from closer for 77-71 with 1 minute, 40 seconds to go. Stelmahers was next with a layup for 77-73 and Ilievski again scored to make it 77-75 with only 13 seconds to go. Palau Blaugrana was on edge as Olimpija committed a quick foul which sent De la Fuente to the free throw line to decide the game. And he did, as both attempts went in for a final 79-75 that secured Barcelona its berth among the Final Four teams in Europe. In the end, the players had to go back to the parquet to thanks the fans that will surely be there with them again, at least on May 9.
Thursday, April 17, 2003