By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Former Chicago Bulls forward Andres Nocioni produced a vintage performance to keep Caja Laboral Vitoria in the hunt for a berth in the Euroleague playoffs after a rollercoaster 86-82 win at Khimki Moscow on Friday.
The competition's six-time winners Panathinaikos Athens reached the last eight with a match to spare in the second group stage after an 82-60 rout of Germany's Bamberg and holders Olympiakos Piraeus, their bitter cross-town rivals, stayed on course with a 78-73 success at Fenerbahce.
Quadruple former champions Maccabi Tel Aviv also edged closer to the quarter-finals with a 101-58 home rout of hapless Besiktas Istanbul while last season's runners-up CSKA Moscow beat Real Madrid 81-72 in a battle of the top contenders.
The 33-year old Nocioni, who has had a topsy-turvy season in Europe's premier club competition, rolled back the years by scoring 24 points, including four crucial three-pointers, to keep Caja in the hunt for one of the three remaining berths in their eight-team top pool.
Khimki, who are also involved in a fierce five-team dogfight to join group winners Barcelona in the quarter-finals, had fought back from a 10-point deficit in the final quarter before Nocioni stepped up to the plate and buried a long-range effort to swing the tie Caja's way.
"It's a big victory for us and it gives us an opportunity to advance to the knockout stage if we win our last home game (against Montepaschi Siena)," Caja coach Zan Tabak told the competition's official website (www.euroleague.net).
Centre Maciej Lampe, who poured 21 points for the winners, added: "It was great to be in this wonderful arena, I spent three years here and have fantastic memories but the most important thing is that we came away with a lifeline win."
Panathinaikos joined the already qualified trio of CSKA, Real Madrid and Anadolu Efes Istanbul from the other pool after Lithuania shooting guard Jonas Maciulis netted a game-high 24 points in just 23 minutes on the court, hitting six of seven three-pointers.
Centre Stephane Lasme and forward James Gist added 11 apiece for Panathinaikos, who will be looking for a win at home against CSKA in their final group match that could lift them into the top two and ensure home court advantage in the best-of-five quarter-final playoff series.
Four teams from each pool advance to the quarter-finals, whose winners will progress to the May 10-12 Final Four in London.
Maccabi looked out for the count halfway through the second group stage with two wins and five defeats but came storming back and hauled themselves into the hunt with a sixth successive victory after an impressive display against Besiktas in their Nokia Arena.
Americans Devin Smith and Ricky Hickman netted 16 points each and their compatriot Nik Caner-Medley chipped in with 15 to boost Maccabi's confidence ahead of a crucial visit to 2010 champions Barcelona in the last round.
"I am really pleased with the club and the players who knew how to turn a very difficult situation into a wonderful one," said Maccabi coach David Blatt, who won the 2007 European Championship with Russia.
"After we beat Besiktas last time their coach said that they played poorly and that we weren't a strong team. Perhaps we are not as strong as in past years but we are still strong enough to rout them and I never thought it would be this easy," he added.
CSKA also appeared to be in trouble at one stage in the top 16 but five wins on the trot, capped by an effervescent performance against eight-time winners Real, elevated them into the driving seat of their section.
Former Toronto Raptors guard Sonny Weems led the charge with 21 points and four assists, playmaker Milos Teodosic added 17 points and seven assists and fellow Serbian centre Nenad Krstic amassed 16 points.
"We played good defense against a team of great shooters and it's a very important victory for us because it's always been our goal to finish top of the group," said Weems.
Teodosic added: "It's easy to collect seven assists when you have team mates like I have, it's all because of them. We never stopped believing in ourselves and are now very close to winning the group."
Real looked certain to clinch that group when they romped to a 9-1 record but three successive defeats have made that objective unlikely ahead of their final game at home to Efes.
The Turkish side also did themselves no favors in the battle for top spot with a 70-64 home defeat by Spaniards Unicaja Malaga but the victory turned out to be meaningless for the visitors, who were eliminated from the playoffs after Panathinaikos won their match.
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)