Hapoel Jerusalem visits Olimpija Ljubljana in its Eurocup Last 16 opener on Wednesday night bursting with confidence after getting its season up and running with eight wins from nine games across three competitions over the last month.
Jerusalem defeated Bnei Herzliya on Sunday to improve to 11-3 in the BSL with its eighth straight victory in local league action. Hapoel secured its progress to the Eurocup’s second group stage three weeks ago by beating Karsiyaka Izmir for its second continental win in a row.
The only blemish for the club from the capital was its defeat at Hapoel Tel Aviv in the State Cup quarterfinals two weeks ago. But Jerusalem didn’t allow the setback to derail its campaign the way it might have done in previous seasons, triumphing in its three BSL games since to solidify its hold on first place in the league standings.
Despite its recent run, Hapoel is not resting on its laurels, adding shooting guard Bracey Wright to its roster on Monday.
The 29-year-old American was signed for the remainder of the season, leaving Russian club Samara. Jerusalem coach Brad Greenberg had been looking to add a scorer to the squad since the start of the season and finally got his man this week.
Wright, who did not fly with the team to Slovenia, averaged 14.9 points, 3.2 assists and 1.6 steals in 10 VTB United League games this season. He averaged double figures in points in all three of his previous Euroleague seasons and was the 2010/11 Eurocup scoring runner-up with 16.7 points per game for Cedevita Zagreb.
Jerusalem will be Wright’s eighth different European club since he first joined Aris Thessaloniki of Greece in 2007/08.
“Bracey Wright is a proven scorer and playmaker with a high basketball IQ,” said Greenberg. “We wanted to add a combo-guard to Derwin Kitchen and Yotam Halperin, who have been playing a lot of minutes in every game. It is important that we don’t exhaust them because we still have many more games ahead of us.”
After 17 consecutive seasons in the Euroleague, Ljubljana is taking part in the Eurocup for the first time this season.
Ljubljana ended regular season Group C in first place with a 7-3 record, winning five games in a row before losing its final group encounter at Paris Levallois.
Jerusalem will want to keep a close eye on Lithuanian forward Deividas Gailus (15.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Finnish forward Sasu Salin (12.5 ppg), who are the team’s top two scorers and can be especially lethal from beyond the arc.
“Hapoel Jerusalem is a very experienced team. Their players know how to gain from their opponents mistakes,” said Ljubljana coach Ales Pipan. “They are having a great season so far. They are doing especially well in the Israeli league.
Their Israeli core of Halperin, Eliyahu and Green is great. The Slovenian fans know all about Halperin who played for Olimpija Ljubljana years ago.”
Pipan has a clear game-plan for Wednesday’s showdown.
“Hapoel plays fast transitional basketball and when Eliyahu joined them they started to play even more efficiently,” he explained. “The most important part will be to stop their fastbreaks. We need to find a way to calm them down and force them to play five on five set offense.
The more we force them to play our basketball, the bigger our chances will be of claiming a victory.”
Also Wednesday, Maccabi Haifa opens its Last 32 account when it hosts CEZ Basketball Nymburk of the Czech Republic at Romema Arena.
Haifa advanced from second place from regular season Group G despite losing its final two games and has also struggled in the BSL in recent weeks, falling to Maccabi Tel Aviv on Monday for what was its fourth defeat in its past six league contests.
Haifa hasn’t managed to fill the void left by the absence of injured playmaker Moran Roth and comes up against a dangerous Nymburk side, which won five of its final six regular season games.
“We have a very good team and we have shown that in the 20 plus games we have played since the start of the season,” said Haifa forward Brian Randle.
“We are just as good as every other team in our Last 16 group.”