A sensational showing by Tyrese Rice helped Maccabi Tel Aviv take a significant step towards regaining the BSL championship on Sunday night, with the American guard registering 30 points and seven assists in 30 minutes to lead the yellow-and-blue to an 81-77 victory over Maccabi Haifa in the first leg of the final at Romema Arena.
After almost single-handedly guiding Maccabi to the Euroleague title last month, Rice carried Tel Aviv on his back once more on Sunday, ensuring David Blatt’s men will be extremely confident of lifting the championship shield on Wednesday night when they host the second leg at Nokia Arena.
Considering it trailed by as many as 11 points, Haifa can be encouraged that it lost by only four points. However, the Greens still left themselves with a mountain to climb if they are to deny the yellow-andblue the league title for a second straight season, something which hasn’t happened since 1966.
Donta Smith led Haifa with 29 points, eight rebounds and eight assists on Sunday, while Brian Randle ended an excellent game with 27 points and seven boards. However, the rest of the team didn’t show up on the offensive end and Haifa will have absolutely no chance on Wednesday should it commit 17 turnovers again.
Ricky Hickman and David Blu added 14 points and 12 points, respectively, for Tel Aviv while center Sofoklis Schortsanitis was limited to nine points in 15 minutes.
Haifa got off to the start it was hoping for, with a three-point play by center Alex Chubrevich giving the hosts an early 5-0 lead.
However, Tel Aviv regained its composure on the defensive end and soon found its range on offense, scoring the next six points to move in front. Five straight points by Hickman took the yellow-andblue’s margin to double digits (21-11), with Rice’s jumper wrapping up an excellent quarter for Maccabi, opening an eightpoint gap (27-19).
Despite its sloppy play, Haifa somehow stuck around, with Randle’s three-point play bringing the Greens within seven points (40-33).
However, the hosts couldn’t gather any momentum, with Hickman, and especially Rice, ensuring the visitors took a comfortable cushion into the break.
After recording just 8.7 points in 17.8 minutes per game in the regular season and averaging 12.6 points in 26.6 minutes in the quarterfinal and semifinal playoff series, Rice yet again stepped up his play when it mattered most.
Rice had 15 points in 12 first-half minutes, with his three-point play giving Maccabi a 47-36 lead.
A Randle free throw cut Haifa’s deficit to 10 points (47-37) at halftime, but while both he and Smith were superb for the hosts, scoring 14 points each in the first half, the rest of the roster combined for just nine points.
However, Haifa’s struggles on the defensive end and 10 first half turnovers would have been of a much bigger concern for coach Danny Franco and his halftime talk seemed to pay dividend immediately, with Tel Aviv having no answer for the Randle and Smith two-man show.
The two scored 14 of their team’s first 16 points of the third period, with Randle completing a three-point move from the freethrow line midway through the quarter to close the gap to just a single point (54-53).
Moran Roth points from the line soon tied the score at 57-57, but Rice continued to terrorize Haifa, hitting a triple before stealing the ball and finishing with a layup to give Maccabi some breathing room (65-57) with two minutes remaining in the quarter.
Rice then also provided the assist for an Alex Tyus three-point play and Tel Aviv took a seven-point margin (69-62) into the final 10 minutes.
However, the yellow-and-blue completely lost its way in the fourth frame, scoring just a single point while committing five turnovers in the first six minutes of the quarter.
Five points by Smith and a Dagan Yavzuri three brought Haifa level (70-70) with 4:10 to play, but the hosts failed to make the most of Tel Aviv’s offensive woes, with Maccabi netting just two points in the first eight minutes of the period.
But Rice had no intention of ending Sunday’s game as a loser, scoring five straight points to open a 76-73 gap and providing the assist for a Blu three that gave Maccabi a small yet significant cushion ahead of the second leg.