AEK of Athens has taken the inside track toward becoming the second Top 16 qualifier in ever-contentious Group D with a 99-85 home win Wednesday against direct rival Ural Great of Russia. The victory lifts AEK to 8-5, and with a better record and point differential against direct opponents, it is all but impossible for the Yellows to lose in all the possible tie situations that exist. Ural, now 7-6, will go to the last week of the regular season in need of a victory at home against mighty Tau Ceramica to keep its hopes alive. AEK led by double digits throughout the first half Wednesday, but had to withstand a Ural comeback to within one point midway through the third quarter. An 7-0 run to start the final quarter put the home team in control again, however, for its second victory against Ural. Big-game player Mikalis Kakiouzis scored all seven of those crucial points and led six AEK scorers in double figures with 21 points. His running mates were Demos Dikoudis and J.R. Holden, with 19 points each, newcomer Chris Carr with 12, Nikos Zissis with 11 and Andrew Betts with 10. Ruslan Avleev had 23 for Ural, followed by Sergie Panov with 19 and newcomer Panagiotis Liadelis with 17.
With the bitter flavor of two consecutive losses in its mouth, and knowing that Ural was coming off almost 18 hours of travel, AEK came out smoking since the very first moment and made its intentions abundantly clear. Led by Holden, the Yellows took a fast double-digit lead, 16-4, and they did everything they could not to allow Ural to challenge it. A very aggressive defense, high-shooting percentages and a lot of fastbreaks gave AEK the opportunity to conclude the first quarter with a 14-point gap, 30-16, its most efficient period of the whole regular season so far. Holden had canned 3 three-pointers by then and was up to 11 points, followed by Demos Dikoudis with 6 and Chris Carr with 5. Ruslan Avleev was the only competitive player of Ural, with 10 among his team's 16 points, as Panagiotis Liadelis was so far scoreless in his return to Greece.
Nothing changed on the court in the beginning of the second period, and now the AEK fans had two reasons to celebrate: the excellent performance of the basketball team and two goals that the football team scored in Thessaloniki, against PAOK, in a Greek Cup game. Nikos Hatzis gave them more to cheer about with a three-pointer, good enough to extend the margin to 16 points, at 41-25. The Russians answered with six straight points to pull within 41-30, but Nikos Zissis answered them with five points in a row and AEK soared back to 14 ahead, at 48-34. Liadelis helped Ural Great to cut the margin to 10 points, at 48-38, but at the end of the first half AEK had gotten back two points to lead 53-41.
That double-digit deficit didn't disappoint Ural Great, which came up big during the third quarter. Liadelis scored five points in a row, Panov sank a three-pointer and the Russians made an 0-8 run to cut the margin to 4 points, 53-49. Four minutes before the end of the third quarter, as a result of better defensive work and the killer instict of Avleev, Ural Great came even closer, just one point from AEK at 61-60. Hatzis stepped up again with crucial four-point play - another three-pointer plus an additional free throw - to give AEK breathing room at 70-62. But Avleev, looking unstoppable, led his team to within 70-67 again, and at the end of three quarters, it was all AEK could do to hold a five-point edge at 75-70.
The beginning of the fourth quarter was Kakiouzis time. Known as a clutch scorer, when he finished off his own run of seven unanswered points, AEK was up by 12, at 82-70. Meanwhile defense specialist Vassilis Kikilias slowed down Avleev even as Ural tried a comeback and got the deficit under 10, to 90-82. But the youngster Zissis, in his best performance ever, hit a three-pointer that made it 93-82 and sealed the outcome.
Wednesday, February 6, 2002