Hapoel Jerusalem forward Lior Eliyahu (L) faces his old team, Maccabi Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Hapoel Jerusalem looks to cement its position as the dominant force in Israeli basketball with a second straight BSL championship on Thursday night, while Maccabi Rishon Lezion goes in search of its first-ever title when the two meet in the Final Four final at the Jerusalem Arena.
After cruising to the best record in the regular season and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, Jerusalem has lived dangerously in the postseason. It barely eked by No. 8 seed Hapoel Tel Aviv with a 3-2 win in the quarterfinals, claiming a dramatic 86-84 victory in the decisive Game 5.
The defending champion was also in serious trouble in Monday’s Final Four semifinal against Hapoel Eilat, trailing by four points with less than five minutes to play. However, it once more survived by the skin of its teeth, going on a game-winning 9-0 run over the next four minutes.
Jerusalem nevertheless enters Thursday’s final as a firm favorite.
While it lost to Rishon in their first meeting of the season back in November, it won their next two encounters in comfortable fashion, 84-72 at home in January and 81-66 on the road in April.
Making matters far more complicated for Rishon, which beat Maccabi Tel Aviv 71-69 in the semis, is the fact that the game will be held at Jerusalem’s home arena, an advantage afforded to Hapoel as the No. 1 seed.
Jerusalem has won 13 straight home games in BSL action, a streak stretching back more than four months. It has lost at home in league play just once in 21 games all season, with Maccabi Haifa the last and only team to win at the Jerusalem Arena, claiming an 82-72 victory on January 24.
Thursday’s final will feel like a home game for Jerusalem, with Rishon only requesting 3,000 tickets for its fans, meaning almost three-quarters of the arena will be filled by Hapoel supporters.
Rishon’s win over the yellow-and-blue means Maccabi Tel Aviv will go two consecutive seasons without a league title for the first time in 50 years and that Jerusalem can also become the only team other than Maccabi to defend its title since Hapoel Tel Aviv in 1965-1966.
A Darryl Monroe basket with 15.6 seconds to play gave Rishon the decisive lead against Tel Aviv in the semis, meaning coach Arik Shivek is back in the final for a second straight year after losing to Jerusalem with Hapoel Eilat last season.
Shivek left Eilat last November after the team opened the campaign with a 1-4 record and the club’s ownership refused to make changes to the roster. He joined Rishon less than two months ago, replacing Sharon Drucker, who fell out with the team’s ownership.
Despite leading Rishon to the quarterfinals of the FIBA Europe Cup following an impressive continental campaign and only missing out on a place in the State Cup final after a double-overtime defeat, Drucker was sent packing, ultimately paying the price for his rocky relationship with chairman Itzhak Perry and the club’s management after Rishon had won just five of its previous 17 league games.
“We have come a long way in a monthand- a-half,” said Shivek. “Rishon hasn’t played in the final in 25 years and my players deserve every credit for overcoming a tough Maccabi team.”
After struggling in the quarterfinals against Hapoel Tel Aviv, BSL Israeli MVP Lior Eliyahu bounced back against Eilat, finishing with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
“We are a dominant side, but teams know our strengths and weaknesses,” said Eliyahu. “Rishon beat Maccabi Tel Aviv so we will be facing a very strong team. I remember last season’s celebrations well and I hope we can repeat those scenes.”