Panathinaikos: Best in Europe

Panathinaikos won the European basketball club championship for the third time on Sunday when it defeated Kinder Bologna 89-83 in the final of the Euroleague Final Four, played at Bologna. Turkish shooting guard Ibrahim Kutluay led Panathinaikos with 22 points, including the team’s last seven in the final 47 seconds. It was an exciting, close game between two equals; at the end, however, Panathinaikos’s poise and greater firepower close to the basket overcame Kinder’s enthusiasm and the speed of its guards, who visibly tired toward the end. Prodded by 9,000 vocal fans, Kinder was the slight favorite to win the title. In the end, as Panathinaikos pulled away, the fans had been silenced; after the match, Kinder’s players and coaches had to be dragged from their locker room to be presented with the runner-up’s trophy, while Panathinaikos’s players and some 800 fans were wildly celebrating. Both teams came out shooting well in the first quarter, with Kinder leading most of the way and Panathinaikos countering. After 10 minutes the match was tied, 23-23. Forward Frangiskos Alvertis, the only player to appear in all three Euroleague finals won by Panathinaikos – in 1996, 2000 and this year – led the team with nine points in the first quarter, while Kinder’s Argentinean-born guard, Emanuel Ginobili, led all scorers with 12 points. Better guarding in the second quarter kept the lightning-fast Ginobili from scoring any points. It was Slovenian forward Matijaz Smodis, however, who took over, scoring 11 points, and helping Kinder get a 14-point lead twice (at 43-29 and 45-31). Even then, Panathinaikos’s players did not panic; Kutluay started scoring and, together with center Darryl Middleton and swingman Dejan Bodiroga, helped close the gap to eight points (40-48) at halftime. Smodis was hot early in the third period as well, scoring Kinder’s first couple of baskets. The tide began to turn against Kinder, however, as Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic decided to take the game inside. Seeing that Kinder’s center, Rashard Griffith, was having a bad day – he ended up with just two points, from free throws – and that his backup, David Andersen, was even less effective, he inserted 22-year-old Lazaros Papadopoulos into the game. The 2.10-meter Papadopoulos, confined to the bench for most of the season, responded by scoring 10 points in the period. His presence also helped Panathinaikos control rebounding. A shot by Alvertis gave Panathinaikos its first lead since the first quarter, at 55-53, and the Greek team had a 64-61 lead going into the final period. The teams were equally matched early on in the fourth quarter, but Kinder’s guards – Ginobili, Marko Jaric, Antoine Rigaudeau, A.J. Granger and Sani Becirovic – began missing too many shots. Panathinaikos played most of the quarter without Alvertis, who was in foul trouble, but 39-year-old Johnny Rogers more than made up by scoring seven points, including five during an 11-1 run which turned a 71-69 Kinder lead to an 80-72 advantage for Panathinaikos. A series of free throws allowed Kinder to close to within two (82-80), but, at that critical point, with just over a minute to go, Becirovic missed two free throws. Kutluay’s three-pointer that followed effectively put the match away. Besides Kutluay, Bodiroga, with 21 points, Papadopoulos (12), Alvertis (11), and Middleton (10), scored in double figures for Panathinaikos. Ginobili led all scorers with 27 points, followed by Smodis’s 23. To get to the final, Panathinaikos had to get past Maccabi, the Israeli team it had met in the final the previous two years, with each team winning the title once. This match, too, was close until the end. Thanks mainly to Bodiroga, who scored 21 of his game-high 26 points in the second half, Panathinaikos prevailed, 83-75. In the other semifinal, Kinder defeated Benetton Treviso, 90-82.