Relative newcomer Makedonikos seeks European glory tonight

In its greatest moment to date since turning professional just 16 seasons ago, the provincial Greek basketball club Makedonikos goes into battle tonight for its first-ever title, a European title, the ULEB Cup, against Lithuania’s Lietuvos Rytas, also a recently established club. The final (ET3, 9 p.m.) will be played in Charleroi, near Brussels in Belgium. Based in the northern provincial city of Kozani, Makedonikos, a recent arrival in Greece’s top division, has displayed an ambitious drive in Europe this season. The club dominated group competition in the ULEB Cup’s qualifying rounds and displayed grit and resilience in its home-and-away semifinal to reach tonight’s final. Up against Serbia’s Hemofarm late last month, Makedonikos suffered a heavy away loss in the first leg, 107-84, but overcame the 23-point gap by staging a stunning comeback with a 96-65 home victory. One round earlier in the quarterfinals, also home-and-away, Makedonikos edged out Athens club Maroussi in two tight games, a 92-89 away win in the first leg followed by a one-point loss at home. Lietuvos Rytas, which eliminated Thessaloniki club PAOK in the quarterfinals, went on to oust Pamesa Valencia in its semifinal clash with a two-point away loss followed by a 10-point triumph at home. The Greek club has sent a full-strength side to Charleroi for tonight’s final. Coach Argyris Pedoulakis said his team’s game strategy would focus on its strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses. «Lietuvos Rytas, too, has weak spots which we can capitalize on. We have some comparative advantages, so we must focus our efforts on these. We need to control the game’s rhythm to get the desired result,» Pedoulakis said. «This has been our year in Europe and we want to end it in the best way possible. We want to end it the way it started,» he added. Makedonikos was first promoted to Greece’s top division for the 2002-2003 season. It has survived in the country’s big league and, last season, came very close to reaching the ULEB Cup’s quarterfinals. The Greek team’s Lithuanian opponent in tonight’s final is also a relative newcomer. Lietuvos Rytas was founded just seven seasons ago in the capital, Vilnius, and immediately posed a serious threat to the country’s traditional powerhouse, Zalgiris Kaunas. Lietuvos Rytas ended third in domestic competition in the 1997-98 season and made the final in 1999 but lost to Kaunas, that season’s Euroleague champion. The club won the domestic crown next season and repeated the feat two years later, in 2002. In last year’s ULEB Cup, the Lithuanian club was eliminated in the quarterfinals by the eventual champion, Hapoel. Speaking at yesterday’s news conference, Lietuvos Rytas coach Tomo Mahoric noted, «Our goal is very clear, we want the trophy.» Makedonikos forward, American Pete Mickeal, remarked: «We have a lot of respect for Lietuvos Rytas. They have great talent and I think it will be an amazing matchup for a title game.» Around 2,000 Makedonikos supporters will be among the sellout crowd of over 6,500 fans at tonight’s final.

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