AEK of Athens came back from 7 points down in the fourth quarter to steal a 71-73 victory over Zalgiris on the road in Lithuania, sweeping their first-round series 2-0 and advancing to a quarterfinal date with Benetton Treviso in the Euroleague Playoffs. Offensive rebounds and putbacks in the final two minutes by Martin Muursepp and Demos Dikoudis proved the backbreakers for Zalgiris, which had toyed with putting the game away at the start of the final quarter. Game-long foul trouble by the Zalgiris big men contributed to the loss, as AEK scored consistently inside and won the rebounding war 43-32. Andrew Betts led the floor with 25 points, and Dikoudis added 19. Betts, Dikoudis and Muursepp combined for 34 of AEK's rebounds. Steven Woodberry led Zalgiris with 17, but his final three-pointer at the buzzer only served to make over his team's disappointment.
Zalgiris had never been out of the game, and in fact had the upper hand more often than not. Zalgiris's forward Andrius Jurkunas, who poured in 26 points on AEK in Athens, started off Game 2 with similar ideas. Jurkunas opened the game with a three-pointer, a slam dunk and two blocks as Zalgiris went ahead 15-11. His frontcourt mate Grygorij Hiznjak joined in with four straight points and a block. But no sooner did the two Zalgiris big men show their teeth than they were beset by serious foul trouble. Hiznjak's third infraction came on a charging call just six minutes into the game. Jurkunas took a couple minutes longer to get his third, but both were on the bench by they end of the first quarter, and in that final minute without them, an Andrew Betts layup inside tied the game at 24-24 for AEK.
When Betts opened the second half with two more layups as AEK went ahead 32-31, Zalgiris's problems in the paint worsened. Now backup center Arturas Masiulis picked up his third foul, the ninth on a Zalgiris big man in 14 minutes of play. With Jurkunas and Hiznjak back on court, AEK continued to score inside until a Jurkunas block on Martin Muursepp turned into a fastbreak layup for Kestitus Marciulionis got Zalgiris back to even. But the inside defense for Zalgiris was still lacking, as 17 halftime points by Betts could attest. Luckily for Zalgiris, Donatas Slanina, the Euroleague's top three-point shooter, woke up from a sleep and gave his team a 42-41 halftime lead with his first bonus shot of the two-game series.
A layup by Ibrahim Kutluay to start the second half gave AEK a 43-42 lead, but that's when Zalgiris started taking off, and that despite fourth personal fouls incurred by both Jurkunas and Hiznjak.Steve Woodberry's three-point play off a jump ball won by Jurkunas made it 47-44. That margin held at 54-51 with two minutes left in the third quarter, but Zalgiris scored the final four points, on a basket by Dainius Salenga and two free throws by Slanina. Zalgiris was up 7, 58-51, at home going into the final quarter.
A Nikos Hadzis three-pointer to open the final quarter started AEK on its comeback. Six minutes later, behind four points from forward Demos Dikoudis, AEK was within a point, and with two free throws by Kutluay took a 66-67 lead. Two minutes were left to play. Each team missed in those final 120 seconds, but the team that got its shots back off the boards, AEK, is the team that will be going to the quarterfinals.
Thursday, February 8, 2001