It’s Final Four time again

Panathinaikos overcame a late challenge from Turkish rival Efes Pilsen in Athens last night to win 84-76 in the deciding game of their best-of-three Euroleague basketball quarterfinal series for a place in next month’s Final Four tournament in Moscow. It will be held between May 6 and 9. The Athens club, without a doubt the continent’s most successful club of the past decade, with three European titles in nine years, will meet the Euroleague’s defending champion, Israeli club Maccabi, in one of the two semifinals, early next month. Russian club CSKA will play TAU in the other. Of the competition’s four best-of-three quarterfinals, the Panathinaikos-Efes Pilsen series was the only one that required going into a third game. The Greek team had won the opening match in Athens, 102-96, after extra time, but Efes Pilsen leveled the series with a 75-63 win in Istanbul. Last night, playing before a capacity 18,000-crowd at its OAKA Stadium, Panathinaikos got off to a slow start and was down 9-1 in the opening minutes. But the Greek club recovered with an impressive bombardment of three pointers – 12 from 16 attempts – over a 25-minute period midway through the match to lead 48-39 at half time and by 20 points by the third quarter’s end. At one point, Panathinaikos had extended its lead to 25 points. The visitor, however, refused to let go and clawed its way back to within just a five-point deficit, 76-71, with just over a minute before the end. But Panathinaikos remained calm when it had to to deprive its Turkish rival of the coveted Final Four place. Four Panathinaikos players struck with two or more three-pointers throughout the game, including Jaka Lakovic, the Greek team’s top scorer with 22 points. Henry Domercant led the scoring for Efes Pilsen with 17 points. In the game’s lead-up, Panathinaikos officials had called for calm in the stands after home-team fans overreacted by throwing objects into the arena in both preceding games between the two clubs. The potential excitement last night, though, proved too much for one Panathinaikos fan in the stadium who died of a heart attack prior to the game’s beginning. No details regarding the individual’s identity had been issued until late last night. Underlining the heightened anticipation for last night’s game, it had been several seasons since local fans last packed a Greek basketball stadium for club-level competition. Panathinaikos went into this Euroleague quarterfinal series with a 4-2 advantage over its Turkish opponent. All their previous encounters concerned Euroleague competition. It had been a while, though, since the clubs last met six seasons ago. Efes Pilsen emerged victorious from the first two encounters, both back in the 1993-94 season. But Panathinaikos went on to register four successive triumphs, two apiece in the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 seasons.

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