Final Four berth at stake

It has been several years since locals last packed a basketball arena in Greece for club-level competition, but tonight’s clash between Panathinaikos and Turkish club Efes Pilsen, the deciding game in their Euroleague quarterfinal best-of-three playoff series, is expected to fill the Athens club’s 18,000-capacity OAKA stadium. The leadup to this make-or-break game for a berth at next month’s Final Four tournament in Moscow has been both thrilling and controversial. In the best-of-three quarterfinal’s first match, Panathinaikos, playing in Athens, struggled to break the Turkish side’s fierce resistance for its 102-96 win after extra time. The home team’s nail-biting effort overheated some of Panathinaikos’s estimated 12,000 fans. Objects were tossed onto the arena and, in reaction, Efes Pilsen’s players departed before being called back by presiding officials to continue. The setting was also volatile in the second game in Istanbul. Efes Pilsen leveled the series with a 75-63 win, but the visiting Greek side needed to persevere through a steady supply of objects being tossed from the packed stands throughout the encounter. Some Panathinaikos players described the experience as the worst of their careers. The preceding tension of both games has bred concern at the Panathinaikos administration for tonight’s decider. In recent days, club officials have called for restraint by Greek fans in the stands to prevent any sanctions against the Athens club. If showered, it can be considered certain that Efes Pilsen players will seek quick escape into the dressing rooms in the hope of precipitating Euroleague disciplinary action against the Greek team. «I extend a request to all Panathinaikos fans, this being not to provoke the Efes Pilsen squad and help by applying self-restraint so that the team qualifies for Moscow’s Final Four,» Pavlos Yiannakopoulos, the Athens club’s president, said earlier this week. «Whoever truly loves Panathinaikos and wants to see the team in Moscow must help in this direction,» he added, while also calling for dedicated fans to be vigilant and ready to smother any isolated cases in the stands. Yiannakopoulos could do his part by restraining his younger, and far more exuberant, brother Thanassis, Panathinaikos’s vice president, who spat at one of the referees during a fracas at the closing stages of the first game. The referee reportedly did not recognize his assailant and Panathinaikos escaped a hefty fine. With three European titles under its belt over the past nine years – coming in 1996, 2000, and 2002 – as well as six Greek league titles over the past seven years, Panathinaikos ranks as the continent’s most successful club of the past decade. Efes Pilsen, a dominant side in Turkey with eight league and six cup titles in the last 13 years, has reached the Euroleague’s Final Four just once, in 2000, and lost to the eventual champion Panathinaikos in the semifinals. Of the competition’s four best-of-three quarterfinals this season, the Panathinaikos-Efes Pilsen series is the only one that has required going into a third game. Defending champion Maccabi booked its Final Four place with successive wins – 88-60 and 103-100 – against Scavolini. CSKA proved too strong for Ulker with scores of 88-74 and 82-64. TAU made it to Moscow with a strong 98-59 victory over Benetton in their opener but needed to push hard for its second win, 66-64.

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