Panathinaikos one step away from title’s successful defense
Defending champion Panathinaikos is now just one step away from retaining its domestic basketball league title following Wednesday night’s 79-71 win over AEK for a 2-1 lead in their best-of-five final playoff series. The finalists meet again on Sunday, at AEK’s home ground, in what could be the decider should Panathinaikos emerge with an away win. AEK put up a stubborn fight throughout most of Wednesday night’s match, but the experience and technique of Panathinaikos, a dominant side in both Greek and European basketball in recent years, assured the title holder victory. Panathinaikos responded with classy play during the game’s crucial final minutes. As expected, Panathinaikos fans generated a fiery atmosphere at the club’s OAKA home stadium. «Things are very different at OAKA than they are at Galatsi [AEK’s home ground]. We knew that victory would require consistent play throughout the game, without any lapses,» said AEK coach Fotis Katsikaris. «We failed to do that in the third match. A 12-0 run [for Panathinaikos], from late in the third quarter to early in the fourth, proved costly for us even though we did try to overturn it,» he added. Wednesday’s defeat now makes Sunday’s fourth game a do-or-die affair for AEK. «We’re now focused on the fourth game, which will be a completely different experience, as we will have the support of our fans. If we win this one, then all is possible,» said Katsikaris. «Victory is essential for us. It’s our last home game for the season and we want to win it with the help of our fans. It’s a well-known fact that our fans haven’t been by our side in all of this season’s [home] games. But they’ve helped in many European games and these playoffs,» he added. Attendance figures at AEK’s home matches have been far from optimal, but Sunday’s encounter is expected to pack in the fans for the first time this season. Despite his team’s 2-1 deficit, AEK player Nikos Zisis expressed confidence that his side can turn this playoff series around. «The pressure’s on us. But we’ve been playing very well and deservedly reached this final. We’re going to make a huge effort to win the next two games for the title,» he remarked, adding: «It won’t be easy – it won’t – but isn’t impossible either. The fourth game will be like a final for us. All of us have a great desire to take this series to a fifth game and then give all we’ve got to that one.» Panathinaikos has won five Greek league titles since the 1998 season, the first four of these in succession. In European competition, the Athens club ranks as the continent’s most successful in recent years, with three European titles over the past nine seasons – 1996, 2000, and 2002. Panathinaikos made this season’s Euroleague Final Four but lost in its semifinal match against Maccabi, the eventual winner.