For the first 38 minutes of Game 1 of its Euroleague quarterfinal series, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s drawbacks were exposed for all to see by Olimpia Milano.
The Italians easily out-rebound the yellow-and-blue (41-25), collecting almost half of the boards under Maccabi’s basket, and dominated Tel Aviv’s backcourt on the way to a 12-point gap (84-72) entering the final two minutes.
Maccabi coach David Blatt was honest enough to admit after the game that he had given up hope of mounting a comeback when he pulled Devin Smith and David Blu from the court ahead of the last two minutes of regulation, already looking ahead to Friday’s Game 2 in Milan. Fortunately for Maccabi and Blatt, Ricky Hickman, and especially Tyrese Rice, never lost faith and led Tel Aviv to one of its most remarkable victories in recent years.
After a rocky start to his time at Maccabi, scoring in double-digits only once in 10 Euroleague regular season contests, the much-maligned Rice seemed to be finally finding his way at the club in recent weeks, averaging 16.5 points and 6.0 assists over the team’s final two Top 16 encounters.
However, Rice’s critics were already sharpening their knives ahead of what seemed like an inevitable loss in Game 1, with the guard scoring just four points entering the final 120 seconds.
They were made to rewrite their columns and cast Rice as a hero rather than a villain following his performance in the clutch, with the 27-year-old American scoring nine points in the final two minutes, including all five of his attempts from the free-throw line.
Hickman added six points to combine with Rice for a 15-3 run to end the fourth quarter and force overtime (87-87). The two guards also scored 12 of Maccabi’s 14 points in the extra period, with Hickman hitting 6-of-6 shots from the line to end the contest, taking his tally for the night to a perfect 9-of-9 after shooting a shocking 62.9 percent from the charity stripe in the Top 16.
However, for all their determination, Rice and Hickman couldn’t have registered the dramatic comeback without some help from their opponents. Only Nicolo Melli knows what went through his head when he committed an unsportsmanlike foul on Rice with 28 seconds to play and the hosts ahead by five points, while former Maccabi guard Keith Langford will never forget how he squandered a chance to give Milano the win with 0.7 seconds remaining, missing a crucial free throw.
However, Milano’s capitulation did nothing to damper Maccabi’s celebrations, although the festivities would be short-lived, with Tel Aviv immediately turning its focus to Friday’s second game in Italy.
Maccabi snatched home-court advantage from the grasp of Milano with Wednesday’s victory, with the series to move to Tel Aviv for Game 3 on Monday and potentially Game 4 next Wednesday.
A decisive Game 5 will be held in Milan if necessary next Friday, but Maccabi will be hoping not to return to the city before mid-May when Olimpia’s Mediolanum Forum hosts the Final Four.
“I think this was one of the greatest games in Maccabi’s history,” said Blatt. “We have to go back to work and think about the next game. There is no time to celebrate. We will try to claim one more road win on Friday and we hope to clinch the series in Tel Aviv.”
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