FC Barcelona took the high road to a lock on first place in Group A when it came from behind to defeat AEK 64-70 on the road in Athens on Thursday. Barcelona, playing its first game without injured forward Gregor Fucka, locked down on defense to raise its record to 10-2 and assure itself the highest seeding in the Top 16. AEK, meanwhile, fell to 5-7 and a four-way tie for fourth place that will keep the Yellows fighting until the regular season finishes two weeks from now before knowing their fate. Dejan Bodiroga led the defending champs down the stretch, when AEK pulled within a shot of the lead, and finished with 22 points. Roberto Dueñas added 11 for the winners, whose defense was just as important, as Rodrigo De la Fuente and Nacho Rodriguez limited AEK scoring ace Horace Jenkins to 8 points. The Yellows were led by Nikos Hatzis with 20 points, while Quadre Lollis put up 14 and tore down 15 rebounds.
In front of 2,500 fans who started cheering from the tipoff, AEK and Barcelona promised great basketball moments right away. Christos Tapoutos was selected by AEK coach Fotis Katsikaris to defend Dejan Bodiroga, while Barca coach Svetislav Pesic put his defensive master, swingman Rodrigo De La Fuente, on point guard Jenkins. As it turned out, big men Andreas Glyniadakis and Anderson Varejao, for the hosts and guests, respectively, scored all the points in an early 4-4 tie. An active Glyniadakis was good news for AEK, but it was clear that even without injured power forward Gregor Fucka, Barca planned to push its superiority in the paint. As such, both Varejao and Roberto Dueñas took a lot of shots, while Bodiroga bagged his first basket after 5 minutes of play for 10-8. At the same time Glyniadakis, committed his third personal foul and was replaced by Pantelis Papaioakeim. Still, the Yellows were able to build a six-point margin, 16-10, and to keep it thanks to 5 consecutive points by Nikos Hatzis, which left the hosts ahead 23-17 after 10 minutes.
To begin the second quarter, Bodiroga moved to power forward and started posting up to lead a Barcelona comeback. First De La Fuente cut the deficit to 27-26, then Bodiroga scored a basket-plus-foul to tie the game, 29-29. After 17 minutes of play, it was Vlado Ilievski's turn to score on a fastbreak layup that gave Barca its very first lead, 31-33. Jenkins, who had struggled against the defense of De La Fuente and Nacho Rodriguez, nailed his first points on a drive after 14 minutes. But Hatzis was there consistently to take up the scoring load for AEK. The captain of the Yellows proved himself ready for any responsibility as he nailed 7 points in less than 3 minutes. That was good enough for a 9-1 run to take AEK to a five-point halftime lead, 40-35, by which time Hatzis had already bagged 14 points for the hosts, and Bodiroga 9 for the visitors.
To start the second half, AEK soared ahead 43-35, with a three-point play by Lollis, who was dominating so much under the boards that the hosts were outrebounding much-taller Barcelona 22-12 to that point. The visitors didn’t give up and tried to put the ball inside and to take advantage of the mismatch that Dueñas created with his size. Indeed, Pesic decided to play with twin towers, Dueñas and Femerling, a tactic which had an immediate effect as Barca cut the margin to 47-46. The visitors were working on a 4-13 run to which Femerling contributed a jumper for a 47-48 Barca lead after 28 minutes. After Juan Carlos Navarro finished a fastbreak to close the third quarter, the defending Euroleague champions had themselves a three-point margin, 49-52.
At the beginning of the fourth period, Barcelona extended its lead to five points, 49-54, on jumper by Navarro. From the other side, AEK didn't take help from Jenkins, while Hatzis seemedtired and also well guarded. Thanks to its class and experience, and led by Bodiroga again in the power forward position, the visitors opened a 51-59 gap after 34 minutes. Both teams played with three guards in order to control the game, and though young Giorgos Tsiaras tried to defend him, Bodiroga upped Barca's margin to 56-63 wiht 2 minutes left. Hatzis wasn't finished, however, and nailed 4 consecutive points to cut the difference to 60-63. With a minute to go, anything was possible it seemed, but not with Bodiroga on the floor. The two-time Euroleague MVP not only controlled the ball, but also scored all the crucial points that remained. With Barcelona leading by three, Jenkins missed a layup and then Ilievski and Bodiroga nailed 7 for 8 free throws to seal their team's 10th victory and the first place at the Group A standings.
Thursday, February 5, 2004