AEK of Athens made a big move in the wild Group A race for the Top 16 when it held off a direct rival, Union Olimpija, with a 91-87 victory in a shootout in Athens on Wednesday. The Euroleague third-best scorer, Horace Jenkins, didn't miss a shot in the first half and finished with 29 points for the winners, including 2 insurance free throws down the stretch. AEK not only improved its record to 6-7, but sent Olimpija down to 5-8. Those two had entered the game as part of a four-way tie for fourth place. One of the other two teams, Pau-Orthez, also lost, meaning that AEK can finish no worse than a fifth-place tie. Olimpija will need a win and some luck to survive now. If Jenkins paced AEK early, others finished strong after Olimpija took leads in the second half and tied in the final minutes. Nikos Zisis added 16 points, Christos Tapoutos 14 points, Quadre Lollis 11 points and 11 rebounds, and Pantelis Papaioakeim 10 points for the winners. Marko Maravic poured in 21 for Olimpija before fouling out late. Simon Petrov added 17 points, Roberts Stelmahers 12 and Marino Bazdaric 11.
Thanks to the aggressive defense and the high shooting percentage, AEK seemed the boss of its court from the start With their fans behind them, the Yellows treated the game as a final, just as coach Fotis Katsikaris had asked. Papaioakeim started hot, pushing the hosts to leads of 7-0 and 10-2. But as the time went by, Olimpija adjusted to the intensity of the game and made a 0-5 run, good enough to cut the margin to 14-13. Roberts Stelmahers started to play his game and although AEK never lost the lead, the visitors came close. Both teams were executing well, which allowed them to combine for 53 points at the end of the first quarter, which found AEK leading by 28-25, thanks to a layup at the buzzer by Jenkins, who already had 13 points without a miss.
To start the second period, Jenkins kept running the court and inspiring his teammates. With Jenkins unstoppable, fast and furious AEK made a 9-2 sprint to soar ahead 37-27 after 13 minutes. When Maravic hit a three-pointer for 37-30, Quadre Lollis copied him and Jenkins added a fastbreak basket for 42-30. The hosts were controlling the rhythm, dominating the boards and scoring easily in transition. Even when Jenkins went to the bench for some rest, AEK didn't lose its spirit and surged ahead to leads of 46-33 and 51-38. After Stelmahers for Olimpija, then Nikos Zisis and Andreas Glyniadakis for AEK, picked up third fouls each, Maravic sank a three-pointer, Petrov copied him and added 2 free throws to bring the visitors within five points, 51-46. The last act of the first half was a three-pointer by Christos Tapoutos that hit nothing but net at the buzzer to restore a big AEK lead at 54-46.
When they returned for the third quarter, the visitors from Slovenia proved their desire to stay alive and to fight for the victory. In less than 3 minutes, they blasted off on a 2-12 run to lead by a basket, 56-58. Dzenan Rahimic added power in the paint, Petrov and Maravic hit three-pointers and the game was turned into a thriller. AEK missed the usual points of captain Nikos Hatzis, who was scoreless through 26 minutes, but Lollis and Jenkins did the job to put the hosts back in front, 61-58, before another big three scored by Petrov tied it again. The fans were enjoying a really great game, business as usual for all home matches of AEK. Coach Katsikaris surprised everyone by putting teenager Spyros Magkounis on court to go with three perimeter players. But the Yellows played some good defense to spark a 10-5 run and take an eight-point edge, 71-63. Olimpija proved too tough to die, however, and recovered to within 74-71 thanks to a layup by Vladimir Boisa on the third-quarter buzzer.
Olimpija continued to battle back in the fourth quarter, as Stelmahers hit a three-pointer to pull the visitors within 80-78. But Zissis answered immediately to give AEK a five-point lead, 83-78, after 35 minutes of play. The visitors kept playing with three guards and defended well enough to keep close. With 4 minutes left, Maravic went to the foul line and tied the game, 83-83. Jenkins returned on the court to help his team not only in offense, but also in defense and ballhandling. As Katsikaris called Tapoutos to give height to his team, Filipovski saw Maravic leave the court due to his fifth personal foul. Details were going to decide the winner, and now AEK made 6 of 6 free throws for an 89-83, but Olimpija still didn’t give in. With 50 seconds to go, Petrov bagged 4 for 4 free throws for 89-87. Lollis and Zissis grabbed 2 great offensive boards that prevented the visitors from attacking again. Appropriately enough, was Jenkins who nailed 2 for 2 from the line to seal the victory of his team and keep the Top 16 hopes alive of AEK and its fans.
Wednesday, February 11, 2004