Armani Jeans Milano made it to the Top 16 and finished third in Group D by edging Panionios On Telecoms 77-87 on the road on Wednesday. Milano registered its fifth win in six games and despite its 0-4 start in Group D, managed to finish third at 5-5 due to its tiebreak advantage against Partizan. Meanwhile, Panionios finished Group D sixth with a 3-7 record. Luca Vitali paced the winners with an incredible show of offensive leadership, posting 32 points on 7-for-9 three-point and 7-for-7 free-throw shooting. David Hawkins added 17 points for the winners, while Jobey Thomas had 12. Lonny Baxter led Panionios with 19 points and 9 rebounds. Ivan Zoroski added 14 points, Branko Cvetkovic had 13 while Miroslav Raicevic got 10 for the hosts, who led 55-45 midway through the third quarter. Hawkins had 9 points in a 5-18 run that put Milano ahead for good, 58-63. Vitali sank consecutive triples while a layup by Yohann Sangare sealed the outcome, 62-76, with 4 minutes remaining. Panionios managed to get within 75-79 but free throws by an outstanding Vitali allowed the entire AJ bench to celebrate that the club will keep fighting for Euroleague glory.
Panionios appeared without Dimos Dikoudis and Ioannis Kalampokis, who had injury problems, while AJ Milano tried to quickly control the rhythm. Panionios big man Lonny Baxter, who is also injured, but decided to play, opened the scoring before Vitali took over for the guests. His first three-pointer put Milano up 4-7, and after Zoroski ended a 7-0 Panionios response from downtown, Vitali matched him with another to make it 11-10. That ignited a 0-13 run for the visitors in which Jobey Thomas popped a triple and Pape Sow a three-point play that made it suddenly 11-20. Panionios found suddenly its defensive spirit, using full-court pressure to grab steals and make a 8-0 response in less than a minute to trim the difference to 19-21 at the end of the quarter.
A quiet exchange of free throws opened the second quarter until Marco Mordente and Vitali shattered the silence with consecutive triples at 22-29. Hawkins kept it going with a put-back of one of Milano's several offensive rebounds before Vitali posted a basket and free throw combination that boosted the margin to 26-34. Again, however, Panionios proved itself too hard to die. Head coach Aleksandar Trifunovic changed his defense from individual to zone, put Vassilis Xanthopoulos at point guard and watched the results pour in. Armani coughed up consecutive turnovers as Panionios scored either in transition or from the arc in a 16-6 blast, including 6 consecutive points, that took back the lead before Milano's Thomas hit free throws for a 42-42 halftime tie.
Vitali came out after the break to prove he was still unstoppable. He opened the third quarter with another triple at 42-45, but Zoroski and Cvetkovic answered with consecutive three-pointers as Panionios tried to steal the game with 13-0 run in less than 4 minutes that seized a 55-45 advantage. The hosts seemed able to go further, but Hawkins came to the fore, posting 10 unanswered points in 2 minutes to bring the match to another tie, 55-55. In the most crucial point of the match, with its season in danger, Milano survived and closed the third quarter with layups by Vitali and Thomas to lead 58-61.
Vitali was about to make it his night to remember, too. His next three-pointer pushed the difference to 62-69, and after Mindaugas Katelynas added a basket, Vitali blasted another triple over the Panionios zone to open the game's first double-digit lead, 62-74. Milano kept dominating now with a 0-10 series that boosted the margin to 62-76. Then Panionios woke up with an 8-0 answer to get withing 70-76. But once again, Vitali was there to continue his three-point shooting extravaganza and score the most decisive basket of the match, a big triple at 70-79. The hosts tried once again to come back by using some zone press defense, but the visitors didn't panic, wrapping up the win and the ticket to the Top 16.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009