What was deemed as impossible just a few months ago became a reality on Sunday night, with Maccabi Tel Aviv recording a stunning 98-86 overtime victory over Real Madrid in Milan to claim a sixth European championship title in club history.
Maccabi's mere presence in the Euroleague Final Four was a huge surprise, but the yellow-and-blue never had any intention of just making up the numbers in Milan, coming back from 15-points down to snatch a dramatic win over CSKA Moscow in Friday's semifinal.
Tel Aviv wasn't supposed to have a chance against Real Madrid either, but no team could overcome the unflappable character of David Blatt's men, with Maccabi erasing an 11-point deficit on Sunday before securing the win in overtime in front of more than 9,000 yellow-and-blue fans who dominated the arena.
Maccabi could have secured the win in regulation, but Tyrese Rice missed in the closing seconds and the final went into overtime. However, the American guard, who was close to being released from the team earlier this season after struggling to settle at the club, more than made up for it in overtime, scoring 14 of his 26 points in the extra five minutes to guide Tel Aviv to its first title since 2005 in its 15th final before deservedly being named as the Final Four MVP.
Maccabi had lost in its previous three appearances in the final in 2011, 2008 and 2006 but has got a sixth European title to add to its trophy cabinet after Sunday's triumph, with the yellow-and-blue also winning the continental crown in 1977, 1981, 2001, 2004 and 2005.
“I'm so happy,” said Blatt, who won his first Euroleague title as a head coach. “We have brought so much honor to the country and to Maccabi fans especially. We never wavered and I'm just so proud of everyone.”
Blatt was congratulated by President Shimon Peres over the phone after the final buzzer, with Peres claiming the dramatic game almost gave him a heart attack.
Ricky Hickman added 18 points for Maccabi, with Devin Smith finishing with 15 points, David Blu scoring 14 and Alex Tyus contributing 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Maccabi hit 9-of-22 attempts (40%) from three-point range, committing just seven turnovers.
Euroleague MVP Sergio Rodriguez led five Real players in double figures with 21 points.
Blatt installed Sofoklis Schortsanitis back into the starting lineup for the final after surprisingly beginning Friday's semi against CSKA with Andrija Zizic. Maccabi fed the Greek giant the ball time and again in the hope of taking advantage of his size beneath the basket.
Sofo scored two early baskets and Yogev Ohayon's lay-up just over three minutes into the game gave Maccabi its first lead of the night (6-5). Maccabi's defense frustrated Real and seven straight points by Smith saw the yellow-and-blue extend its gap to six points (13-7).
After scoring just seven points in the semifinal, Smith took his tally in the final to seven points in just over two minutes and Maccabi was off to a dream start, with Real hitting only one of its first 12 attempts from the field.
However, after looking completely out of sync in the first seven minutes of the game, Real found its range, ending the first quarter with a 9-2 run to take a 16-15 edge into the second frame.
Madrid continued its run at the start of the second period, quickly establishing a double-digit gap (26-15) with Maccabi remaining stuck on 15 points.
Marcus Slaughter's dunk capped the 19-2 surge and took Real's lead to 11 points (26-15), with the yellow-and-blue being held to two points in six minutes.
Maccabi was in danger of losing touch of the Spaniards, but a three-point play by Rice, who didn't play a second in the first quarter, kept Tel Aviv's head above water (26-20).
Real soon reestablished a double-figure margin (33-22) thanks to Felipe Reyes's basket off Madrid's seventh offensive rebound of the night.
The Spaniards dominated the boards and had a chance to take a significant gap into the second half. However, Blu by himself would outscore Real 7-2 in the final two minutes, ending the half with nine points.
After averaging just nine points per game in the Euroleague until the final, Reyes scored 12 points in the first half alone on Sunday. But he would score Real's only two points in the final three minutes of the second quarter and Blu's triple to end the half, just Maccabi's second from eight attempts, brought the yellow-and-blue within a mere two points (35-33) entering the break.
The momentum remained on Maccabi's side at the start of the second half, with the Israelis holding Real to only two points in the first four minutes of the third quarter.
However, Maccabi only managed five points over that stretch, with Hickman's jumper giving the yellow-and-blue its first lead (41-40) since the first period.
Tremmell Darden's triple gave the Spaniards a 45-41 advantage, but Maccabi replied with five consecutive points of its own to move back in front (46-45).
After hitting just 2-of-8 three-point shots in the first half, Smith's triple took Maccabi to 3-of-5 from beyond the arc in the third period to put Tel Aviv ahead once more (49-47) Rodriguez picked up his third foul with 1:39 remaining in the third period, but he ended the frame with a three-point play to give Real a two-point edge (55-53) ahead of the final 10 minutes.
A Tyus dunk tied the score to start the fourth period, but Rodriguez answered with a three at the other end to keep Real in front (58-55). A Rice three-point attempt which somehow dropped after bouncing high off the rim put Maccabi back ahead (60-58) and the lead would continue to go back and forth.
Maccabi lost Sofo to a fifth foul with just under six minutes left to play and another Rodriguez triple handed Madrid the lead (64-63).
After both teams combined to score their first 18 free-throws in the first 35 minutes of the final, Real's Nikola Mirotic missed from the line and Rice's floater made it 67-67 with 3:07 remaining.
The score was still tied entering the final two minutes, but a Blu lay-up followed by a huge stop on defense and another Rice-basket saw Maccabi move into a 73-69 gap with 55 seconds to play. However, free throws by Rodriguez followed by a Hickman-miss saw Real tie the score (73-73) with two accurate attempts from the line by Ioannis Bourousis with 21.4 seconds remaining.
Maccabi still had one more chance to clinch the victory, but Rice missed from distance in the closing seconds and the Euroleague final went into overtime for the first time since 1969.
Rice dominated the extra period though, scoring eight of Maccabi's first 10 points in overtime to give the yellow-and-blue a six-point lead (85-79) with 2:23 to go.
Maccabi never looked back, remaining in control until the final buzzer to clinch the club's sixth European title.
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