It depended on itself and Montepaschi Siena delivered. On Thursday night, Montepaschi won the final Top 16 game at Panathinaikos by 77-86, and that was all it needed to advance to its second consecutive Final Four. In doing so, Montepaschi eliminated both finalists from last season, Benetton and Barcelona, and won Group F in a tie. Montepaschi ended the Top 16 with a 4-2 record, the same as Benetton, but won the ticket to Tel Aviv because in two games they split, it had a higher point difference. Panathinaikos ends with a 2-4 record. Bootsy Thornton led the way for the winners with 22 points, David Vanterpool added 18 and Vrbica Stefanov nailed 16. Five players scored in double figures for Panathinaikos, with Jaka Lakovic leading the way with 16 points. Nikos Hatzivrettas and Kostas Tsartsaris bagged 13 apiece, Haris Mujezinovic added 12 and Giorgios Kalaitzis added 10.
Panathinaikos had very few chances to make the Final Four, but that didn't prevent the Greens from coming out strong. They played for the win to please themselves and their fans, and led the game by 26-22 at the end of the first period and by 46-36 at halftime. Montepaschi showed that it wanted the win very badly, but its players were nervous and their low percentage on long-distance shots didn't help. The visitors had nonetheless taken an early lead of 11-16 midway through the first period, but then allowed Panathinaikos to answer with an 11-0 run that made it 22-16 late in the period.
In the second quarter, Panathinaikos tried to push the gas playing with three guards, Hatzivrettas, Jaka Lakovic and Kalaitzis. And when Mike Batiste entered the game, the Greek champs became stronger, as they showed great balance between inside and outside to outscore Montepaschi. Lakovic and Hatzivrettas led Panathinaikos with 10 points apiece, while Marvis Thornton was really effective for Montepaschi, scoring 14 points in 20 minutes, most of those in the first quarter, however. As such, the Greens led at halftime, 46-36.
For the third quarter, Montepaschi appeared like a hurricane on the court. Vanterpool started with 4 points of his own and Giacomo Galanda added back-to-back triples for a 0-10 run to tie the score, 46-46. But Montepaschi just didn't stop there. With Panathinaikos completely out, Thornton hit a three-point play, and Vanterpool added two more free throws for 46-51. Kostas Tsartsaris broke the 0-15 run with a triple for 49-51, but Siena was in a scoring mood and the Greens' defense wasn't enough to stop them. Stefanov nailed a jumper from the side and Thornton added a triple for 50-63. The hosts however, resisted thanks to Kalaitzis triples and Mujezinovic under the rim, but Michalis Kakouzis appeared for a three-point play and Vanterpool added his basket for a 60-72 after 30 minutes.
In the last quarter, Siena played to maintain its lead. Knowing that the win brought it directly to the Final Four it didn't get into any risky situations. Stefanov maintained the lead for 62-74, but at that moment, Roberto Chiacig was fouled out. Arriel McDonald left the deficit on 10 points thanks to two free throws, but Stefanov destroyed all Panathinaikos hopes from beyond the arc, 64-77. Siena's defense also grew stronger and forced Greens turnovers. With that scenario the clock kept running and with two minutes left, the guests knew that they were going to win the game. Panathinaikos didn't surrender however and Kalaitzis appeared with a new triple for 72-80 but with one minute and 10 seconds to go, Dusan Vukcevic hit a monster triple that made all theories true: Siena had already its ticket to Tel Aviv and its second consecutive Final Four.
Thursday, April 08, 2004