Credit: Panagiotis Moschandreou/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images
Credit Panagiotis Moschandreou/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

If Nemanja Nedovic was Panathinaikos's battering ram in the recent Greek derby, breaking Olympiacos's doors open, Howard Sant-Roos worked as the Greens' impregnable fortress.

Howard Sant-Roos

Howard  Sant-Roos
Howard  Sant-Roos
MIN: 19.39
PTS: 6.36 (54.29%)
REB: 2.27
As: 1.09
ST: 1.18
BL: 0.27
TO: 1.18
GM: 11

The 30-year-old Cuban point forward was the man who kept the visitors alive when the Reds broke the game open at the beginning (12-3). In less than three minutes, he recorded three points, one rebound, two assists, and one steal, helping his team get the lead (15-14).

From the start of the second half up until six minutes to the end, the game development tended to justify those who believed that Olympiacos would cruise to a comfortable win, a practice that has become commonplace this year in Piraeus. Not this time, though.

An amazing comeback took place in the fourth quarter, when the Greens overthrew a 14-point deficit, largely thanks to an unreal Nemanja Nedovic. The Serbian guard scored 16 of his total 24 points, with Sant-Roos brushing aside any doubts about the winner of the duel when his star teammate got fouled out.

His stat line consisted of 10 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, one block, and one steal in just 15 minutes of action. What else is there to ask for?

Well, an explanation for what we all witnessed in the Peace and Friendship Stadium last Monday night wouldn't hurt.

"Olympiacos and Panathinaikos have such a history and I'm honored to be a part of it. I can actually say that I have played in those games. The difference is that this year, there were fans in the arena and the atmosphere was amazing," Sant-Roos told BasketNews after the game. 

Last year, with no fans in the stands, Panathinaikos still managed to get a rather comfortable 88-77 EuroLeague win at Olympiacos's home court.

In one of his career-best performances, Sant-Roos had dropped 20 points on 2/5 two-pointers, 4/6 three-pointers, and 4/4 from the charity stripe.

"For me, it's all about the atmosphere," he insists. "Of course, there is a big rivalry, and someone has to win. But fans are the main difference."

Panathinaikos were going 4/20 from behind the arc at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Olympiacos had exactly the same percentage. Nevertheless, the Greens hit one three-pointer after the other down the stretch, on their way to a huge 33-16 partial score.

Credit Vangelis Stolis

As a matter of fact, Sant-Roos was the man who made the shot that essentially sealed Panathinaikos's road win. With the score at 74-76, the Cuban forward converted a pass from Daryl Macon to give his team a five-point lead with only 1:06 remaining.

"I think we made six threes in five minutes. It's huge. I would give much credit to our defense. We played great zone defense, although we missed some defensive rebounds," he acknowledges before making a special reference to the derby's indisputable protagonist.

"I have to give credit to Nedovic. In the last quarter, he was doing his thing, what he's capable of doing. That was amazing.

Overall, we just didn't give up. Everybody was focused, ready to take their shots. I think that worked for us."

Sant-Roos believes that zone defense, a strategy that proved to be very effective in PAO's EuroLeague game in Munich against Bayern, can turn into a legit long-term solution. In the Greek derby, it definitely worked since the Reds struggled a lot from the perimeter, going 4/27 throughout the whole game.

It was a risk that paid off for the winning side, although in Germany, Vladimir Lucic severely damaged the Greens' hopes for their first road win.

"From what I see right now, although I'm not a coach, I feel like it's going to be something that we will definitely rely on," Sant-Roos maintains.

"It has worked for us so far. As you guys saw, in Munich we lost in the last possession. Of course, we're going to play some man-to-man as well, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it," he stresses.

For insiders and outsiders alike, reality has proven that Greek derbies are invariably governed by their own rules that have little or nothing to do with the teams' current form. But an integral part of any pre-game analysis was based on hard facts.

The most telling and compelling was that Olympiacos were unbeaten at their home games this season, boasting a perfect 10/10 across all competitions. Panathinaikos, on the other hand, have returned empty-handed from their 7 EuroLeague games away from OAKA.

"Actually, I didn't know that," Sant-Roos admits. "I don't know, man. This is a derby. They are like playoff games, anything can happen. It's one at a time," he adds.

Credit Vangelis Stolis

As the case has always been with such derbies, the winning team gets a tremendous psychological boost.

Panathinaikos had the luxury to celebrate the win both in the team's locker room in Piraeus and in the OAKA parking area, where more than 1,000 enthusiastic fans were patiently waiting for the squad to arrive to express their gratitude in the most exuberant of ways.

However, the season is big, and Zenit Saint Petersburg are coming up next for the Greek champs.

"In 48 or 72 hours from now, nobody will remember that we won. We definitely need to take this result with us. It wasn't just a Greek League game, but a EuroLeague game too," Sant-Roos thinks.

"So, we need to have the same energy, the same focus on Thursday against Zenit. To bounce back, we need results. We got to win. There's nothing else that we can possibly think of. That's all it takes for us to be able to come back and talk about something."

In order for PAO to be more competitive on the European front, there's still a lot to improve on.

Last season, the team finished 16th in the standings. Club management (former president Panagiotis Triantopoulos and GM Frangiskos Alvertis) promised a much better 2021-22 campaign, speaking at a press conference last June.

Alas, the six-time EuroLeague champs are currently 2-9, tied for last place in the standings.

Credit Vangelis Stolis

Sant-Roos is perfectly aware that his team is still struggling in search of identity, as Panathinaikos haven't managed to create and preserve a core of players that will ensure continuity and consistency.

"I feel that back-to-back changes of teammates, with new players coming and going, make things hard for a team to adjust. There's a 50-50 chance whenever you bring in new people and hope that the chemistry is going to be good. It can go either way.

I feel that chemistry is what we're missing right now. We don't have what other teams have: those years of playing together," he points out.

On the other hand, the experienced forward can now be viewed as one of the Greens' main pillars, especially after he re-signed with them last summer. His future is inextricably linked to that of his current team, or at least that's what he hopes for.

"They are not going to get rid of me that easy! I'm here for the long run. I still love tzatziki and mousaka (traditional Greek specialties)," he utters with confidence - and a sense of humor that instantly rendered him popular among his peers.

Credit Vangelis Stolis

What the 2018 EuroCup champ does not know, however, is whether his Greek passport will be issued anytime soon.

It's a case that Panathinaikos and Sant-Roos have been working on for several months since the player's wife is Greek, and thus he came even closer to getting his hands on the much-coveted document.

If that should ever happen, he will not occupy a foreigner's position on PAO's roster. For now, the situation looks rather murky, at best.

"I have no idea, man. Why is it taking so long? Probably because I don't speak Greek. I've heard different things. They're saying this and that, but in the end, I'm still without a passport.

They haven't even given me a timeframe. Nothing at all," he reveals, investing his side's ecstatic night with a note of complaint.

After such a night, there was something to complain about after all.

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3-pointers this season

Points made: 8,1
Accuracy: 33,3%
Place in standings: 12
Record max: 15
Record min: 3
Most made 3FGs: Daryl Macon