Brave win keeps endangered hopes alive

Panathinaikos, winner of three Euroleague basketball titles over the past decade, kept its battered hopes alive in this season’s competition by rebounding for a courageous victory in Athens last night against the Group G leader Cibona, undefeated until last night. The Greek club, which went into last night’s encounter having lost its first three games in second-round group action, ended up winning 88-69 after looking headed for defeat and elimination. Divided equally into four groups of four, 16 qualifiers from the previous round of Euroleague group action are vying for the top two spots of their respective groups for best-of-three quarterfinal playoffs ahead of this season’s Final Four tournament to be held in Prague between April 28 and 30. Either trailing by worrisome margins or holding a narrow lead during most of the game, Panathinaikos did not manage to break away from Cibona until the encounter’s final quarter. Panathinaikos began the final quarter trailing by a point, 60-59. Three minutes later, the Athens club was ahead by one, and from that moment on did not look back and established its 88-69 winning result in just a matter of minutes. Fellow Group G members Benetton Treviso and Efes Pilsen were on 2-1 and 1-2 records respectively ahead of their encounter in Italy later last night. On Tuesday night, Olympiakos virtually secured its place in the quarterfinals with a resounding 87-75 win over Unicaja Malaga in Spain. The Piraeus club, seeking to re-establish its place as a formidable force in both domestic and European club-level competition, had won the European title back in 1997 but began slipping out of the picture a couple of seasons later. Just weeks ago, the club’s Euroleague aspirations this season appeared headed for an early end, but Olympiakos scraped through the Euroleague’s previous round of group competition to snatch one of the current round’s 16 berths. With a 3-1 record and two games remaining, Olympiakos has a firm grip on second place in Group D and aspirations for top spot. This would give the Greek club the home-ground advantage should a deciding third game be needed in the best-of-three quarterfinal playoffs. Olympiakos would assure itself of first place with wins in its remaining two games, against Barcelona at home – by at least five points – and Zalgiris Kaunas away. In Tuesday night’s action, visiting Olympiakos took full advantage of its jittery Spanish opponent, which needed victory to join its Greek rival in second place. Tuesday’s defeat leaves the Spaniards with a 1-3 record in third place. Olympiakos played an excellent first half to lead 49-30 at the break. The Greek team, which began in dynamic fashion, had established a 39-19 lead 16 minutes into the encounter. The Greek team led by as much as 23 points, 67-44, after 31 minutes of play. The joy felt at the Piraeus club for its rosy Euroleague prospects even prompted a sporting remark from Olympiakos player Panayiotis Vassilopoulos for struggling Greek archrival Panathinaikos, ahead of last night’s win. «I hope Panathinaikos qualifies [to the quarterfinals] for the well-being of Greek basketball,» Vassilopoulos told reporters at Athens Airport.