By Zoran Milosavljevic
Eight-time Euroleague champions Real Madrid and triple former winners Olympiakos Piraeus reached the premier club competition’s final with contrasting wins on Friday night.
Real, looking for their first title since 1995, beat Final Four debutants Fenerbahce Istanbul 96-87, while Olympiakos edged CSKA Moscow 70-68 in a nail-biting contest after overcoming a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
Sunday’s title showdown will be a repeat of the 2013 final in London’s O2 Arena, when Olympiakos beat Real 100-88 in a spectacular clash.
Both semi-finals generated an electric atmosphere in Madrid’s Palacio de Deportes, with several thousand frenetic Turkish fans making Fenerbahce feel almost at home.
So loud were their jeers whenever Real had possession in the opening quarter that the pockets of home supporters could hardly be heard in the imposing arena situated in Madrid’s artisan and shopping district of Goya.
But the Turkish faithful were silenced by a fierce Real onslaught in the second quarter when they turned a 21-20 deficit into a 55-35 half-time lead thanks to an avalanche of three-pointers and fast breaks.
Mexican centre Gustavo Ayon netted 16 points in the first half and American guard K.C. Rivers scored 12, nailing all four attempts from three-point range as the home side’s deep roster cancelled out a valiant solo effort by Fenerbahce’s Jan Vesely.
The former Washington Wizards forward cut a lonesome figure in attack with some crushing slam-dunks while his team-mates looked bereft of ideas and lacked the guile to contain the Spanish giants.
Battling Fenerbahce fought hard to turn the tide after the break but Real, having done the damage in the opening half, could afford to take their foot off the pedal in the closing stages.
In the opening semi-final, Olympiakos playmaker Vassilis Spanoulis scored 11 of his 13 points in the last five minutes of a rip-roaring contest as the Greek side continued to haunt their more fancied Russian rivals.
The outcome was almost a carbon copy of the 2012 final in Istanbul, when a buzzer-beating hook-shot by forward Georgios Printezis gave the Greek side a 62-61 win.
They also brushed aside CSKA 69-52 in the 2013 semi.
With CSKA 63-54 ahead, the inspirational Spanoulis ignited a 12-0 run with a pair of three-pointers and a difficult off-balance jump-shot.
When the score was tied at 66-66, he nailed another audacious shot from behind the three-point arc and, after guard Kostas Sloukas buried one of two free throws with six seconds left, CSKA threw away their last possession.