The dream of Panathinaikos to play a Final Four on its own court came closer than ever as the Greens downed Efes Pilsen 65-79 on the road Thursday to advance to the Quarterfinal Playoffs from Group F. The vicotry by Panathinaikos (4-0) also assured that Winterthur FC Barcelona (3-1) advances, and the two will now battle for first place and homecourt advantage in the best-of-three playoffs. Efes (0-4) is eliminated at an earlier moment than in any season of the last five despite playing the Greens close right into the final quarter. Niksa Prkacin's free throw put Efes ahead 56-55 before Panathinaikos burst ahead with a 0-9 run featuring triples by Ramunas Siskauskas and Dimitrios Diamantidis. Efes never recovered. Sani Becirovic led the winners with 16 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists, while Siskauskas added 14 points and Kostas Tsartsaris 10 to go with 9 rebounds. Efes got 21 points from Drew Nicholas, 14 and 12 rebounds from Marcus Haislip and 10 points from Ermal Kuqo, but it wasn't enough to avoid a season-ending loss.
Mustapha Abi and Niksa Prkacin got Efes on the board, but it was the hosts' pressure defense that starred early, keeping Panathinaikos almost scoreless through four-and-a-half minutes, after which a layup by Nicholas put the hosts ahead 6-2. However, Panathinaikos then forced consecutive turnovers by Efes and took advantage when Becirovic's layup-plus-free throw put the visitors ahead 6-7. He had all his team's points until then, but Dejan Tomasevic added free throws to complete a 0-7 run with Panathinaikos ahead 6-9. Next, Efes took its turn. Haislip, who had already made 3 huge blocks, dropped a triple to tie it up and detonated a huge dunk to make put the hosts back in front, 11-9. Nicholas joined joined by making a pair of free throws and striking from the arc to complete a 10-0 run that had Efes in charge at 16-9. Dimitris Diamantidis revived the Greens with a triple, but they could only get as close as 20-15 after 10 minutes.
Ermal Kuqo opened the second-quarter scoring with a layup that made it 22-15. Soon, Efes would have its biggest lead, 28-19, on an inside basket by Kerem Gonlum. Panathinaikos had to respond, and did, with offensive rebounds as Dimos Dikoudis scored back-to-back baskets to get the guests back in the game at 30-27. Becirovic then went to the line and hit 4 of 4 free throws to tie it up, 32-32. In the next-to-last minute of the first half, Siskauskas completed the Panathinaikos comeback by dialling long distance for a triple just before the end of the 24-second shot clock that returned the lead to the visitors, 33-35. Nikola Prkacin responded for Efes with an inside basket for the last points of the first half as the teams went to their locker rooms all even, 35-35.
Panathinaikos, which had 10 offensive rebounds in the first half, kept working well offensively, moving the ball cleverly and staying focused on the boards to start the second. It paid off as Mike Batiste shot his team ahead 35-39 with the first baskets of the third quarter. Haislip picked up Efes now with a pair of triples to make it 41-41, but Batiste answered with a big dunk to keep the Greens ahead. Becirovic got the next offensive rebound for Panathinaikos and put it back in. Panathinaikos tried to open the gap as Dikoudis hit from downtown and Batiste dunked, but Granger and Nicholas answered for Efes, keeping the hosts within 50-51. That duel continued through the final minutes of the quarter as Becivoric and Siskauskas kept Panathinaikos one step ahead until Nicholas beat the clock with a driving basket to forge yet another tie, 55-55, after 30 minutes.
Efes led to start the final quarter on a free throw by Prkacin, but Diamantidis matched him before Siskauskas rained a triple that boosted Panathinaikos in front, 56-59. Tomasevic soon added a layup and Diamantidis a big triple that extended the lead to 56-64 after a 0-9 blast. Efes got 3 points back through Haislip and Nicholas, then tried a zone defense, but it changed little as Panathinaikos moved the ball quickly to find Kostas Tsartsaris for a layup and Siskauskas for a triple that supplied a double-digit lead, 59-69, with 5 minutes left. Kuqo tried to rally Efes with a couple baskets, but Tsartsaris bettered him with a tirple, a jumper and a free throw as the Panathinaikos lead climbed to 63-75. By the time Diamantidis dunked in the final minute, it was all over. Panathinaikos was moving on and Efes was eliminated.
Thursday, March 8, 2007