After a roller-coaster season of highs and lows, Maccabi Tel Aviv scaled the highest summit in European basketball on Wednesday night, advancing to the Euroleague Final Four the for the first time since 2011.
Maccabi clinched a 3-1 quarterfinal series win over Olimpia Milano with an 86-66 victory at Nokia Arena, which was far tougher than the final score indicates.
Milano had an eight-point advantage at the halftime break (43-35) and took a two-point edge (56-54) into the final 10 minutes, with former Maccabi guard Keith Langford scoring 28 points for the visitors in the first three quarters.
However, Maccabi had no intention of returning to Milan for a decisive Game 5 and steamrolled Olimpia in the fourth period, opening with a 15-3 run to take a double-digit gap (69-59) and never looking back, ultimately outscoring the Italians 32-10 in the final 10 minutes.
Maccabi got off to its worst ever start in the BSL this season, suffered its heaviest home defeat in history in any competition and stuttered into the Euroleague quarterfinals after winning just four of its final 10 Top 16 contests.
However, a miraculous comeback in the final two minutes of regulation in Game 1 saw it steal home-court advantage from Milano, and despite being outplayed for 40 minutes in Game 2, Maccabi claimed a convincing triumph in Game 3 at Nokia on Monday before wrapping up the series with a sensational fourth quarter on Wednesday.
“This is an amazing feeling,” said Maccabi coach David Blatt.
“People always speak about the spirit of Maccabi Tel Aviv and that spirit always lives and appears when it matters most.
We beat an excellent team by 20 points in a crucial game. I haven’t got enough words with which to credit our guys.”
Blatt also didn’t forget all the critics who doubted his team during the season.
“Six months ago everyone, but everyone, said we were done,” Blatt said. “We as a team decided to block out all the background noise and focus on basketball and believe in ourselves. I always believed in these guys. Reaching the Final Four is a great achievement.
We are a new team without big stars, but with players who want to play the right way and I’m so proud of them.”
Maccabi will be back in Milano in three weeks for the Final Four, which will be held at Olimpia’s Mediolanum Forum.
Tel Aviv will face the winner of the series between CSKA Moscow and Panathinaikos. CSKA will host Game 5 on Friday after Panathinaikos claimed a 73-72 win in Greece on Wednesday.
Ricky Hickman and Alex Tyus led five Maccabi players in double figures with 16 points each on Wednesday, with Tyus also taking nine rebounds. Devin Smith added 13 points and nine boards, with David Blu and Sofoklis Schortsanitis scoring 11 points each.
Maccabi hit 22-of-43 shots from two-point range (51%) and 11-of-19 attempts from beyond the arc (58%). The yellow-andblue also out-rebounded Milano 36-29 and committed just eight turnovers.
Langford ended the night with 28 points, failing to score in the fourth quarter.
“We have achieved something amazing,” said Maccabi captain Guy Pnini. “Six months ago we looked like a shell of a team, but now we are in the Final Four.”