Everyone knew AEK could defend a lead. What the world found out Wednesday night is that the irrepressible Athens club also has the firepower to stage an historic comeback. Down by 6 points with under 30 seconds left, AEK rode some amazing three-point shooting by Mikalis Kakiouzis and Ibrahim Kutluay into overtime to snatch away Benetton Treviso's upset bid in Athens with an incredible 97-89 victory. A buzzer-beater from 9 meters by Kakiouzis, his second three-pointer in the final half-minute, capped a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback that totally demoralized Benetton. Kutluay then christened overtime with his third three-pointer in 90 seconds, and added a pair of free throws to put Game 1 out of reach.
In his first playoff action after missing two games, Kakiouzis led AEK with a team-high 27 points in just 20 minutes, hitting 4 of 5 three-pointers and 4 of 5 two-pointers. He also hit 7 of 10 from the line and pulled 10 rebounds. The halfcourt buzzer-beater that turned the series around was planned, too. ?Regarding the last 3- point shot, made by Kakiouzis, I have to say that it was a well-organized play,? Ivkovic said afterwards. ?Our opponents were waiting for a shot to be taken by Kutluay, but Kakiouzis was full of confidence, so he shot it.?
Kutluay finished with 25 points, including 5 three-pointers, but he needed 12 attempts. Center Andrew Betts added 13 points and 12 rebounds, and forward Demos Dikoudis 10 points and 9 rebounds. AEK destroyed Benetton on the glass, 43-29. In the end, that and bad performance at the foulline (24 for 38, 66 percent) will be remembered more than Marcus Brown's 25 points or Petar Naumoski's 20 for Benetton.
"I could say that God helped us, but it's out of the question," joked AEK coach Dusan Ivkovic afterwards. "Of course God gave us a little help to make this incredible comeback and to win the game. I thought that I saw everything in 1986 in Madrid, when the national team of Yugoslavia lost a 9-point difference in 50 seconds at the semifinal against Soviet Union, but history makes its cycle. Anyway, it was a big achievement, that comes mostly from our soul and keeps our homecourt advantage. Even when Benetton took a 14-point lead, I thought that we deserved the victory. Everybody in the team had confidence and believed we could win, to overcome all the problems they caused us."
The opening of the game was all Martin Muursepp. Problem was that after he christened it with a dunk, his next three statistics were fouls. Luckily, AEK had Demos Dikoutis to come off the bench, but during the transition Benetton took a quick 9-13 lead. But Dikoutis had joined a surprise starter, swingman Vassilis Kikilies, who was denying Marcus Brown for the moment. Andrew Betts scored four in a row on the inside, and then Nikos Hatziz nailed a three. Stefanov, orchestrating the whole thing, scored on a drive, as AEK retook the lead. Finally, Dikoutis crowned a 17-7 run with a pair of baskets bridging the first and second quarters that supplied AEK with a potentially commanding 29-20 lead.
But that potential command was illusory for AEK. Suddenly, Brown was scoring his first basket, and his second, and Benetton was steadying itself a bit, pulling within 32-27. That was enough to get his teammates flowing, too. Steals by Pittis and Jorge Garbajosa led to a dunk and a three-pointer by Brown, five unanswered points that tied things at 32-32. Brown's fourth consecutive basket gave Benetton a 32-34 lead, and he still wasn't finished. Brown would get two more free throws before halftime, for a personal total of 13 points in the quarter, but the key last-minute shot for Benetton came from an unexpected source, birthday boy Nachbar Bostjan, whose 21st birthday was Tuesday. His three-pointer in the final minute put Benetton in the lockerroom with a 36-40 advantage, about as good as it gets on the road in the playoffs after trailing by 9 less than 10 minutes earlier.
But wouldn't you know it was Brown who opened the second half with a steal and fastbreak layup, and two minutes later that Benetton lead had surged to 40-49. That added up to a 29-11 since the early second quarter. To make matters worse, Muursepp came out for the second half and promptly drew his fourth foul. Kutluay had started the half in place of the defensive specialist, Kikilies, was desperately needed now. Instead, a block by Alan Tomidy leading to a fastbreak layup by Brown pushed the Benetton lead into double digits, 51-41. A sequence near the end of the third quarter was definitive. Forward Marcelo Nicola assisted Pittis, who then turned around and stole from AEK to set up Brown for a three-pointer. Then Nicola found Pittis free for another baskets. The third quarter had ended, the visitors led 48-62 and they were cranking on all pistons.
AEK's plan to save the game was quickly apparent. They got the ball to Kutluay, who started off the final quarter with five unanswered points, and put on a zone press that immediately yielded an offensive foul and turnover by Pittis. Aided by a 24-second violation against Benetton, Hatziz and Steve Hansell put up the next six points for AEK, balanced only by Tomidy's tip-in. Benetton's lead was down to half of its high of 14 points just 4 minutes earlier. A new assist by Nicola to Pittis offset by an inside shot from Betts left the margin at 59-66 with 5 minutes to play. Backups Massimo Bulleri of Benetton and Mikalis Kakiousis of AEK had 3 and 5 points, respectively over the next four minutes, but Benetton still led 68-75 with a minute to go.
But now it was time to go the foulline for Benetton. Petar Naumoski missed the first two, giving Benetton a 10-for-20 record to that point on the night. Naumoski made up for it with a steal and two good free throws, however, and his team still lead by 6 with 35 seconds to go. But Kutluay is famous for his clutch shooting, and now he nailed a three-pointer. After to more Naumoski free throws, Kutluay did it again. Now the process repeated itself, only Kakiouzis hit the three. The lead was down to three, 79-82, when Pittis was fouled with 18 seconds to go. The adapted lefty, who shot with his right hand until this season, when he switched due to an injury, missed both free throws. Kakiouzis would get the last shot, from 9 meters away. And it went in. After that, there was no looking back for AEK.
Wednesday, February 21, 2001