BELGRADE Former Euroleague winners Milan powered into the playoffs with two games to spare after an 82-73 win at Fenerbahce and eight-times champions Real Madrid stayed top of their section with a dramatic victory at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Holders Olympiakos Piraeus boosted their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals thanks to an impressive 80-63 away rout of Unicaja Malaga while their cross-town rivals Panathinaikos went down 84-62 at Barcelona, who stretched their perfect Top 16 record to 12 wins.
Milan, who last won Europe's premier club basketball competition in 1988, prevailed in front of a fervent Istanbul crowd on Friday as Fenerbahce's Serb coach Zeljko Obradovic was ejected midway through the third quarter for dissent after continuous protests to the referees.
Trailing by 20 points at that stage, the home team launched a fierce onslaught in the final period and cut the deficit to five points but the visitors held firm to cancel out a brilliant individual performance by Fenerbahce forward Bojan Bogdanovic.
The Croatian netted a game-high 24 points and Lester Bo McCalebb sank 17 for the home side but the rest of the roster misfired, with Milan nailing nine three-pointers as five of their players finished with double scoring digits.
Needing a win to keep alive their challenge, Olympiakos took control from the start and overran Unicaja thanks to another inspired performance from playmaker Vassilis Spanoulis, who scored 20 points.
"We played well and were intense from the beginning, as our guards had a great game after learning how to handle each situation and that is one of the most important things in basketball," Olympiakos coach Georgios Bartzokas told www.euroleague.net.
"With this victory we are closer to qualifying but we still have two very tough games left."
Barcelona and Milan have qualified from Pool E, where Panathinaikos, Olympiakos, Fenerbahce and Unicaja are vying for two more berths.
Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow have advanced from Pool F, with Maccabi, Galatasaray, Lokomotiv Krasnodar and debutants Bayern Munich battling it out for the remaining two spots.
The winners of the best-of-five quarter-final series will progress to the May 16-18 Final Four in Milan.
Despite booking their ticket last week, Real played at full throttle against Maccabi and came out on top in a dramatic finish on the back of 21 points by playmaker Sergio Rodriguez, with Montenegro-born forward Nikola Mirotic adding 17 and four rebounds.
"We didn't play as well as we did last week (against CSKA) but we knew it was going to be very difficult because Maccabi are fighting to get into the playoffs," said the heavily bearded Rodriguez.
"But we needed this game very much and we want to win the remaining two so that we finish top of our group."
A rampant Barcelona treated their fans in the Blaugrana arena to another memorable night after Slovenia forward Erazem Lorbek and forward Alejandro Abrines amassed 15 points each to sink six-times champions Panathinaikos, who face an uphill battle to reach the last eight.
(This story has been refiled to correct score in first paragraph)
(Editing by Martyn Herman)