PANATHINAIKOS STAND TALL, WIN EUROLEAGUE

Panathinaikos have claimed the Euroleague title for the sixth time in their history, living up to their billing as favourites and bullying Maccabi Tel Aviv into submission to gain a 78-70 win in the final in Barcelona.

It was an eighth continental crown for their coach Željko Obradovic. His players dragged him there, led by 18 points from Mike Batiste and 16 from Dimitris Diamantidis, named as the game's Most Valuable Player for the second time in his career. This side might not be the equal of the one which triumphed in Berlin two years ago. But it was ultimately the class of the pack this season. 

Maccabi, roared onward from all corners of the Palau San Jordi, were simply a notch below. Despite a desperate late rally, they were deserved runners-up. Once Pana found its stride, it was irresistible.

"In the first half, we tried to find different solutions and the best possible choice and the right answers," said Diamantidis, who added 9 assists. "In the second half, we created much better, we went in at half-time and talked to each other about making better choices. And that's what took us to victory."

The Greeks tried to assert themselves early. Diamantidis demonstrated just why he is already both the league’s MVP and its anointed Defensive star. His side led 6-3 as Maccabi overcame its nerves. But soon they settled, levelling at 8-8 and then moving ahead through Guy Pnini in the sixth minute.

Pana responded by reeling off seven unanswered points to enrapture their choir of green-clad, chanting supporters. And they accelerated to go 22-15 at the end of the first quarter. They would never trail again.

Sofoklis Schortsanitis was picking up fouls. Maccabi were struggling inside, saved only by their three-point shooting, making 5 of their first 10 attempts. Their opponents, making just 1 of 8 in the first half, marched into the paint and held the Israelis at arm’s length with Chuck Eidson scoring all but one of his 17 points in the first half which closed with The Greens 33-30 in front.

The gap was soon closed to a single point at the outset of the third period. Finally, Pana discovered their touch from long range. Romain Sato hit a three to increase the gap to 43-36. Then Drew Nicholas saw his shot go from deep, hit the rim, bounce up and then through as a roar erupted.

The deficit grew. David Blatt agitated on the sideline, calling a time-out when Antonis Fotsis pushed Panathinaikos 51-40 in front. Sato struck again. Tel Aviv’s woes continued when Eidson’s made three-pointer on the buzzer was ruled too late once officials checked the TV replay, leaving his team in a 54-43 hole with ten minutes left.

"We're a brand new team and that was a factor," Blatt declared afterwards. Falling as much as 14 points behind their more experienced foes, Maccabi composed themselves for a late ignition. Lior Eliyahu – once a Draft pick of the Houston Rockets – lit the touchpaper after waking up from his slumber. A three-point play trimmed the gap to 63-56.

As both foul counts headed into the penalty, Pana’s players steadied their hands. Their supporters clapped theirs together above their heads, an anthem willing them in unison past the point of no return.

Maccabi’s drums beat loudly but their side could not quite match their timbre as the clock ticked down on this season. Closing to 69-64, Obradovic was forced into a time-out with 1:20 left. Diamantidis took charge, finding Batiste with a precise pass in the low post which the one-time Memphis Grizzlies centre duly converted.

The storm was quelled, just, although late turnovers gave Maccabi just a glimmer. But although the gap was sliced to 74-70 with less than 20 seconds to go, Tel Aviv’s dream of a fifth European championship will have to wait at least one more year. "They were the justifiable winners," said Blatt. "Basketball is not a Hollywood movie. Not every story has a happy ending, but that doesn't make the story bad. This has been a great season for us."

This was Obradovic’s day and Panathinaikos’ year.

"At the beginning of the season because we lost some very important players, many people said were would have problems getting to the Final Four," said the Serb. "I said before our first game against Valencia, I said to the players that it should be extra motivation. Today we are once again champions of Europe. So I have to give a lot of praise to my players for their hard work and for all the time they spent in the gym.

"I want to thank our fans and to those of Maccabi who made for an excellent atmosphere. They set the standard for their support.

"In the first half, I felt we were nervous, we missed open shots, We made turnovers. But we played much better in the second half and we dominated the game. In the last few minutes, we made some silly mistakes which gave Maccabi hope. But we were the better team."

Notes: Sportingbet.com confirmed that one fan placed a bet of €200,000 to win by at least 3 points. Maccabi went into the final with a 13-11 lead in the all-time series between these teams. Maccabi went into the locker room just as Israel began its Memorial Day, 24 hours when sport is effectively forbidden. The club was forced to deny rumours that they would have refused to play an overtime period which extended past 7pm local time (8pm, Israel) in the face of the tradition. The team observed a moment's silence in the locker rom afterwards, confirmed Blatt, who later compared Obradovic to Phil Jackson as a pre-eminent coach of modern basketball. "You only live once," said Obradovic, who dedicated the win to his former assistant in Badalona, whose father died last night. Pana meet Olympiakos next week in the final of the Greek Cup. Diamantidis confirmed he will not go back on his international retirement.

 

Siena take consolation prize

In the third place play-off, Montepaschi Siena defeated Real Madrid 80-62 in a lacklustre tie. Kristof Lavrinovic scored 17 points to pace the Italians champions in a game they controlled from start to finish.

An early 10-0 lead put Siena in the driver's seat and although Madrid never quit, behind 23 points from Sergio Llull, their opponents built on their 36-32 half-time advantage, pulling away in the third quarter.

“We are proud of being here and the way we played in the Final Four,” said Siena coach Simone Pianigiani. “We will try to compete at this level next year. This is an important project and we will try again next season. We have been here four times as an outsider, like against Panathinaikos yesterday. They have the best players in Europe and won a lot of times.

"We are proud and some shots should have gone in. We are not that far away — we could have made it this time. We went to overtime once, down to one shot another time, our approach to the game was good but details were not in our favour."

Earlier, the Euroleague confirmed that next year's Final Four will be held in Istanbul.

Zagreb take Junior crown

Croatia side KK Zagreb claimed the Nike Junior International Tournament, defeating Zalgris Kaunas 76-65 in the final.

Zagreb, led by their brilliant 17-year-old forward Dario Saric, used a 21-9 third quarter to pull away from the Lithuanians in the climax of the de facto European junior club championship.

The Croats won all four games with Saric, the 2.05m do-all talisman, grabbing 19 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in the decider.

Afterwards, he confirmed: "I will play in the Under 18 European Championships and the Under 19 worlds."

Arturas Gudatis notched 13 points and 15 rebounds for Zalgiris, who are owned by the chairman of Hearts FC, Vladimir Romanov.

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