PIRAEUS, Greece — Rick Pitino’s winning streak with Greek club Panathinaikos is over.
After two straight victories in his European coaching job, Pitino’s team was dealt a 79-65 loss on the road Friday to archrival Olympiakos in a game in 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-game, home-and-away regular season will advance to a 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 points, all in the second half.
“It is only one game. There are many more,” Pitino 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 three-point plays and in one case a four-point play as well as a couple of “unsportsmanlike” fouls that let Olympiakos keep possession after the free throws.
Olympiakos made 19-of-26 from the foul line, compared to only 3-of-6 for Panathinaikos.
Pitino was immediately thrust into a high-pressure situation, with Panathinaikos being out of the Euroleague’s top eight 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 the game against Panathinaikos’ main domestic rival is one that is taken very seriously by fans of both teams, arguably a more intense rivalry than anything he experienced with Kentucky and Louisville.
The day before the game, more than 50 fans visited Panathinaikos during a training session to urge the team to beat the hated Reds of Piraeus. The club president, Dimitris Giannakopoulos, known for his volatile temper, was also there to give a pep talk.
A win would have immediately elevated Pitino to near demigod status with Panathinaikos’ fans. He still has the excuse of being a newcomer during 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 in Europe coaches are far more expendable than they are in the United States. Larry Brown was unceremoniously dumped after six months with Auxilium Torino on Dec. 27.