Dino Radja came to play after all, but it was another recently injured player, forward Nikos Ekonomou, who allowed Olympiakos to escape upset defeat with a 94-92 victory against visiting Muller Verona on Wednesday. Ekonomou hit all four of his three-pointers in the final quarter to lift Olympiakos to a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series. Verona tried to pull it out with a final three-pointer, but Henry Williams missed and time expired as David Arigbabu collected the rebound and tried to pass to the perimeter for another game-winning shot attempt.
It was an incredible game, one that epitomized the wild beauty of basketball. Even though Olympiakos took an 8-point lead with 2 minutes, 18 seconds left in the game, Verona came back and Williams tried to steal the victory.
It was not to be for Verona, and Olympiakos had dodged a bullet. With 33 points and such fourth-quarter heroics, Ekonomou was indeed back, just in the nick of time. Radja shook off the leg injury that kept him out of practice on Tuesday and dropped in 21 points to go with 10 rebounds.
Ekonomou's brillant performance was the factor X for Olympiakos to win the game and to stay alive, having the privilege to play an eventual third game at Piraeus. The 28-year-old power forward scored 17 of his 33 points in the last 5 minutes and led Olympiakos, who suffered because of the run-and-gun game of the Italian team, especially the 3-point-shots launched by Louis Bullock, who connected on five of then en route to a team-high 31 points.
Radja appeared two hours before the game and declared himself available to play, even though he didn't sleep all the night because of pain in the leg that David Rivers had crashed into during practice Monday. The Croatian superstar led Olympiakos in scoring and rebounding from the beginning, as he scored 13 points at the first period. Dimitris Papanikolaou was the defensive key of the home team, as he managed to stop Henry Williams, who scored only 2 points in the first half. Later on Papanikolaou was given the order to defend Bullock, who subsequently hit but a single three against Papanikolaou.
Olympiakos took an 11-point lead shortly before the end of the first half (46-35), but Verona didn't give up. Bullock and Conlon led the Italian team on an impressive comeback and 5 minutes before the end of the third period Verona took the lead by 54-55. Bullock with another threepoint shot gave to his team a 7 points margin (67-74), but Ekonomou would have the last. He hit two consecutive three points shots, Dusan Vuksevic added another one and Olympiakos found the way to its rescue. In the last two minutes and 18 seconds both teams scored 29 points, as Verona, thanks to its tremendous offensive ability, didn't permit Olympiakos a single easy breath. Seventeen seconds before the end of this thrilling game, Ekonomou scored two free throws (93-89), but Williams gave his answer from the three-point range (93-92). Tomic missed one free throw (94-92) and that was the final result, as Williams missed the shot at the buzzer.
"That was a really great basketball game, one of the most dramatic I have played in, ever," Ekonomou stated. "I don't feeil like a hero, but sometimes you have to push yourself. I had to recover from the injury I had and today was my day. Now we have to concentrate on the league game against PAOK, in Salonica and then to go to Verona, for the sweep. I recognize that it is not an easy game, as the Italian team is used to playing at a very high offensive tempo."
Elias Zouros congratulated Dino Radja and Milan Tomic, "because they played after a lot of problems and they proved how dedicated are". The coach of Olympiakos mentioned the defensive help that Papanikolao gave to the team and explained that "in the last play of the game, our target was to break the pick and roll of Verona, forcing them to make the shot from inside and not from outside. Finally Williams took the shot and he missed. It was a great game from both teams."
Filippo Faina was a little dissapointed. "We had a big opportunity to win the game, and any coach might lose this way, he should cry! We almost won, but unfortunately we lost and now we have to tie the series in Verona and to return to Athens for the third game.
Wednesday, January 31, 2001