Hapoel Eilat handed Maccabi Tel Aviv its first defeat as European champion on Monday night, but far more important was the fact that it leveled their BSL best-of-five semifinal series at 1-1 with an 81-71 victory in Game 2 in Israel’s southernmost city.
Maccabi claimed a comfortable 90-72 win in Game 1 at Nokia Arena and was favored to move within a single win of the final on Monday, with only two teams coming back from a 0-2 deficit in a playoff series since the format was introduced in the 1989/90 season.
However, Eilat burst out of the gates to build an early double-digit gap, and remained in control until the final buzzer to tie the series ahead of Game 3 at Nokia on Thursday.
Terrico White had 19 points and 10 rebounds for Eilat, with Kevin Palmer also scoring 19 points. Elishay Kadir and Christian Watford added 11 and 10 points, respectively.
“It feels good to beat the European champion, but to us Maccabi is a regular team,” said White. “We had to come with the right approach in this game.
We are going to come with the same mentality in the rest of the series and we will see what happens.”
Devin Smith led Maccabi with 22 points and 10 boards, while David Blu had 15 points for the yellow-and-blue, which was playing without the sick Sofoklis Schortsanitis and lost Yogev Ohayon to an ankle sprain in the third quarter.
“Well done to Eilat, but we didn’t come to play tonight,” said Maccabi coach David Blatt. “Finally we saw the consequences of everything that we have endured over the past two months and Eilat made the most of it. We didn’t play well in any parameter, but losing is part of the game and we will need to come back better on Thursday.”
After failing to find its rhythm in the second half of Game 1 last week, Eilat made sure it got off to a fast start on Monday, with a White basket opening a double-digit margin (27-17) in the first quarter.
Kadir ensured Eilat took a nine-point gap (29-20) into the second period and Afik Nissim’s basket reestablished a double-figure cushion (40-29).
However, after allowing 40 points in the first 15 minutes of the game, Maccabi finally tightened its defense, with Eilat scoring just two more points in the final five minutes of the first half.
Tyrese Rice’s three-pointer to beat the shot-clock buzzer brought Tel Aviv within five points (40-35), a gap Eilat still held at the break (42-37).
However, Maccabi’s defense was a mess once more at the start of the second half, with Eilat scoring 10 points in the first three minutes of the third quarter to move 13 points clear (52-39).
Maccabi lacked determination and desire and found itself down by 15 points (62-47) before slightly limiting the damage (65-54) ahead of the final 10 minutes.
But the closest the yellow-and-blue would come was eight points (73-65), with Eilat never losing its cool on the way to an impressive win that ensured the local fans will get to enjoy at least one more home game this season.
On Tuesday, Maccabi Haifa hosts Hapoel Jerusalem at Romema Arena in Game 2 of the other semifinal. Haifa humbled Jerusalem 107-79 at Malha Arena last week to snatch home-court advantage away from the hosts.
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