SPORTS

Panathinaikos beats Maccabi, makes Final Four

Panathinaikos will defend its European crown in Istanbul next month after eliminating Maccabi 3-2 in the best-of-five quarterfinal series through an 86-85 win on Thursday night in Athens.

The nail-biting game at the Olympic Sports Hall showed that both teams deserved to get a ticket to the Final Four, but eventually it is Panathinaikos who is joining Olympiakos, CSKA Moscow and Barcelona in the semifinals.

The hosts were once again the team with more quality but also with more pressure than their opponents, in front of no fewer than 22,000 fans at the full to capacity stands.

Maccabi had a composed start to the game by pacing it to match its style and end the first period with a two-point lead (20-18).

Panathinaikos had a fantastic second period as it tightened its defense to concede just 12 points while scoring at will, to end the first half nine points ahead (41-32).

Greek international Sofoklis Schortsanitis helped Maccabi get back into the game in the second half. The visitors scored 12 unanswered points to turn a 46-34 deficit to a 46-46 draw.

The Greens bounced back, though, to regain a 12-point lead (70-58), when the final comeback of the Israelis started.

Maccabi reduced the deficit to just two points 40 seconds from the end taking advantage of the hosts? nerves that saw them miss five out of six free throws. Poor defending in the last minute saw Maccabi score baskets and earn fouls, to level the score at 85-85 10 seconds from time.

Yet when it really mattered, in the last 16 seconds of the match, captain Dimitris Diamantidis made five out of six from the line to make the score 86-85 and help his team defend for the remaining five seconds during which Maccabi did not even cross the halfway line.

Diamantidis stamped his authority on the game with 25 points, leading Panathinaikos to its 11th Final Four.

In the semifinals in Istanbul in May six-time European champion Panathinaikos will face CSKA Moscow and Olympiakos will play Barcelona.