Maccabi Haifa staked its claim as a BSL title contender on Sunday night, crushing Hapoel Jerusalem 91-64 at Romema Arena behind a triple-double from the unstoppable Donta Smith.
Despite being the defending champion, Haifa has gone overlooked for much of the season, with Maccabi Tel Aviv and the resurgent Jerusalem dominating the headlines and exchanging the lead at the top of the standings throughout the campaign.
However, Haifa looks to be finding its form when it matters most, thoroughly outplaying Jerusalem on Sunday a week after edging the yellow-and-blue.
Haifa improved to a 17-9 record and can clinch the No. 3 seed in the playoffs with a victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv (15-10) next week.
Hapoel hosts Maccabi (19-6) in the Tel Aviv derby at Hadar Yosef Arena on Monday.
Haifa effectively clinched the win over Jerusalem by the halftime break, opening a 26-point gap (58-32), with Smith ending the first 20 minutes just one rebound shy of a triple-double.
Smith finished the night with 16 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds and four steals, leading five Haifa players in double figures. Brian Randle added 15 points, while Terrence Roderick scored 14, with Adrian Henning and Moran Roth contributing 11 points each.
After a tight start to the game, Haifa seized control by ending the first period with an 11-2 run (30- 18) before scoring 16 of the first 21 points of the second frame to open an unassailable lead (46-23).
Yaniv Green had 11 points for Jerusalem, which suffered just its third league defeat in 20 games and will have to bounce back quickly with Maccabi Tel Aviv coming to Malha Arena on Saturday night in a direct showdown for the No. 1 seed.
Meanwhile, Maccabi Ashdod squandered what was likely its final opportunity to avoid relegation to the National League on Sunday, falling to a 5-21 record following an 83-72 loss at Bnei Herzliya (7-19).
With three regular-season games still to play, Ashdod maintains a lingering hope of climbing out of last place and leapfrogging Herzliya.
However, it could have already done so on Sunday had it not capitulated in the fourth quarter.
Herzliya led by just two points (63-61) entering the final frame, but two three-pointers by young Israeli forward Oz Blazer and a three-point play by Jakim Donaldson opened a double-digit gap (72-61) from which Ashdod could not return.
Stanley Burrell led Herzliya with 20 points, with Donaldson adding 14 points and nine boards.
Kenny Hayes had 19 points for Ashdod.
Barak Netanya (8-18) secured its top-flight status for another season on Sunday, beating Maccabi Rishon Lezion (8-18) 86-79.
Netanya snapped an eight-game losing streak, leading by double- digits for almost the entire second half until a late Rishon rally made the score more respectable.
Rashaun Freeman had 23 points and 12 rebounds for Netanya, while Dawan Robinson and Julian Mills scored 20 points each.
Davin White, Tray Johnson and Tasmin Mitchell had 14 points each for Rishon.
Hapoel Eilat (17-9) all but clinched the No. 5 seed in the playoffs with a 99-79 win over Hapoel Gilboa/Galil (12-14) on Sunday. A 17-5 Eilat run to end the first half gave the hosts a cushion (44-31) they never came close to relinquishing.
Terrico White led Eilat with 22 points, while Kenny Boynton netted 17 points for Gilboa.