Olimpiakos is getting used to last-minute finishes in the Euroleague, but if they all go this way, none of the Reds' fans will be complaining. The Reds sneaked by Unicaja 81-80 at home in Athens on Thursday to put a near-lock on third place in Group A and an almost sure trip to the Top 16. Unicaja (5-6) led throughout the second half and had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but Veljko Mrsic's layup rolled out. Unicaja will have to find a way to rally as it faces its make-or-break game next week against group rival Efes. Olympaikos won despite Alphonso Ford having a low-scoring night, for him, of just 20 points, almost seven below his league-leading average. James Forrest added 17 for the winners and Stephane Risacher 10. Ironically, Mrsic led all scorers with 23 points, with Danya Abrams adding 17, Frederic Weis 11 and Moustapha Sonko 10 for Unicaja.
Facing, two opponents, not only Unicaja Malaga, but itself as well, after two consecutive home defeats in the domestic league, Olympiakos didn't allow either to cause serious problems during the first quarter. Patrick Femerling led his team at the beginning and minute by minute the Reds managed to lengthen the lead. Despite the excellent performance of Abrams, who scored 10 of his team's first 15 points, Olympiakos had a lot of offensive options, good enough to take an early lead of 22-15. Paco Vasquez hit a three-pointer (22-18) and Elias Zouros turned his defense from individual to zone, which limited the options of Unicaja. Theodoros Papaloukas scored on a fastbreak to open the lead to 27-18, as Olympiakos missed just three of its first 15 field goal attempts. At the conclusion of the first period, Olympiakos was nine points ahead, 29-20.
Unicaja Malaga was not about to give up so early. The visitors came up big, playing a much better defense - the signature of coach Bozidar Maljkovic - to cut the deficit to 33-29. Ford, with 11 points, gave Olympiakos a six-point lead, 35-29, just before Mrsic got hot. The Malaga shooting guard scored 9 of 10 points as his team tied the game 37-37 on the strength of 15- for-17 free-throw shooting. Olympiakos for its part had a tremendous percentage in two-point shots (17-for-24 at the end of the first half), but kept switching point guards between Milan Tomic, Papaloukas and Misad Nikagbatse. The quarter would end in a 45-45 tie as Charles Kornegay missed a free throw for Unicaja.
Early in the third period, Sonko's layup gave Unicaja its first lead at 47-49. The Spanish team took control of the game, starting from its superb defense and taking advantage of the bad offensive decisions of Olympiakos. As a result of this situation, Berni Rodriguez scored a jumper to finish off a 16-4 run for his team that changed the scoreboard from 45-43 to 49-59 after 25 minutes. Olympiakos tried an aggressive zone defense, managed to steal some balls and convert them to fastbreaks and a 9-0 run to cut the margin to 60-64. Ford found the way to basket, again, but Mrsic didn't forgive whoever left him open when his three-pointer preserved a five-point Unicaja lead, 63-67, at the end of the quarter.
The fourth period was really emotional. Unicaja was always leading, but Olympiakos would not quit. Mrsic was on fire once again, scoring seven points in a row to put Malaga ahead 74-80 just 2:25 before the finish. But it was not enough. The Reds made a great effort to stay alive. Dimitris Papanikolaou cut the margin to 76-80. Then Abrams missed a pair of free throws and James Forrest made him pay, making 4 of 4 from the foul line to tie the game 80-80 with 40 seconds left. Some 13 seconds later, Abrams fouled out on charge drawn by Papanikolaou and the Reds again had their chance in their own hands. Milan Tomic controlled the ball, and Rodriguez committed a personal foul on Alphonso Ford. The best scorer of the Euroleague shot 1 for 2 from the line, good enough to give Olympiakos its first lead since 45-43. Ford missed the second free throw, Mrsic tried to go coast-to-coast, but surprisingly he missed at the buzzer, even though he had an unchallenged layup.
Wednesday, January 16, 2002