PIRAEUS, Greece (AP) — Rick Pitino’s winning streak with Greek club Panathinaikos is over.
After two straight victories in his first European coaching job, Pitino’s team was dealt a 79-65 loss on the road Friday to archrival Olympiakos in a game for the Euroleague, Europe’s premier club competition.
Olympiakos broke open the game late in the first half with a 10-0 run that extended its lead to 36-21. Olympiakos led by as many as 21 points and Panathinaikos could not get closer than 12.
There was excitement until the end, though, as Olympiakos was seeking to erase Panathinaikos’ 13-point win (93-80) earlier in the season to have the advantage in case of an equal win-loss record. Olympiakos (10-6) is in fifth place and Panathinaikos (7-9) is 11th. The top eight teams after a 30 home-and-away regular season will advance to best-of-five playoffs, with the winners going to the Final Four, on May 17-19.
Serb center Nikola Milutinov, whom Pitino compared to former NBA greats Charles Oakley and Buck Williams after the game, had 18 points and 18 rebounds for Olympiakos, while guard Nick Calathes led Panathinaikos with 13, all in the second half.
“It is only one game. There are many more,” he told the Associated Press when asked how the team would bounce back. But he also agreed “100 percent” with the assessment of veteran American forward James Gist that Panathinaikos “played hard but not smart”. “And it wasn’t just the fouls,” he said, still smarting from the ease with which Olympiakos’ players seemed to get a basket and a bonus free throw for 3-point — and, in one, case, 4-point plays, as well as a couple of “unsportsmanlike” fouls that let Olympiakos keep possession after the free throws.
In all, Olympiakos made 19 of 26 from the foul line, compared to only 3-for-6 for Panathinaikos.
Pitino was immediately thrust into a high-pressure situation, with Panathinaikos being out of the Euroleague’s top 8 after recent setbacks. Pitino did win his opener, a Dec. 28 victory over Russian powerhouse CSKA , currently third in the standings and, two days later, had an easy victory in Greece’s domestic league. But it was his fate to next face Panathinaikos’ main domestic rival, a game taken very seriously indeed by the fans of both sides, arguably a more intense rivalry than anything he experienced with Kentucky and Louisville.
The day before the game, more than 50 hardcore fans visited Panathinaikos during a training session, to urge the team to beat the hated Reds of Piraeus. The club president, Dimitris Giannakopoulos, a man known for his volatile temper, was also there to give a pep talk.
A win would have immediately elevated Pitino to near demi-god status with Panathinaikos’ fans. As it is, he still has the excuse of the newcomer at a difficult stretch, but the hardest of the hardcore fans are already murmuring. Pitino’s contract only extends to the end of the season and he will probably not have to find that, in Europe, coaches are far more expendable than what he’s been used to. Larry Brown, unceremoniously fired after six months with Auxilium Torino on Dec. 27, already knows.