Maccabi Tel Aviv is aiming to claim the State Cup for a 41st time on Thursday night, while Hapoel Eilat will only be playing in its first final.
At first glance, there couldn’t be a bigger mismatch.
However, Eilat enters the final at Nokia Arena confident of its chances of dethroning the four-time defending cup holder.
It isn’t just that Eilat is coached by Oded Katash, who has past experience of shocking his former team in a title game, leading Hapoel Gilboa/Galil to the BSL championship at the expense of Maccabi in 2009/10.
It is also that Eilat has already come very close to defeating Maccabi at Nokia this season.
In the teams’ only meeting so far in 2013/14 two months ago, Eilat led by as many as 15 points in the first quarter and wasn’t done until Yogev Ohayon’s lay-up to beat the final buzzer secured an 83-79 win.
According to some reports, that victory saved Maccabi coach David Blatt’s job. The yellow-and-blue entered the game on the back of two-straight defeats – a BSL derby loss to Hapoel Tel Aviv and a Euroleague setback against Laboral Vitoria.
Guy Pnini came out of nowhere to save Maccabi, scoring 22 points after netting just 25 points in total in Tel Aviv’s first seven BSL games.
Pnini went on to play a key role in Tel Aviv’s 17-game winning streak over all competitions that started soon after the victory over Eilat, and will be the one to collect the cup should Maccabi triumph after being reinstated as the team’s captain.
“Eilat has an excellent roster, one of the best in Israel,” said Pnini, before brushing aside the suggestion that he doesn’t deserve to be the Maccabi captain after being stripped of the honor for calling Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Jonathan Skjoldebrand a Nazi, among other profanities, during a derby game in December 2012.
“We have experienced some ups and downs this season but we are entering the final in good form.”
Despite a mediocre first half, Tel Aviv ultimately easily overcame Maccabi Rishon Lezion 99-83 in Monday’s semifinal.
Eilat outclassed Hapoel Tel Aviv 82-73, leading by more than 20 points before Hapoel made the score-line slightly more respectable with a late surge.
“Eilat played very well against Hapoel in the semis, so we need to make sure we are ready for them,” said Maccabi’s Joe Ingles. “We are facing a far tougher game than in the semis.
We have only completed half the job.”
Blatt has never lost a cup game as a Maccabi head coach, winning the trophy on five occasions while amassing a 24-0 record.
However, he will be wary of Katash’s side, especially after describing his counterpart’s display in the semis as a coaching master-class.
Eilat has struggled for consistency for much of the campaign, collecting a 9-8 record in the BSL to date.
However, Eilat crushed Maccabi Ashdod by 20 points in its most recent league game last week and seems to have truly hit its stride with Monday’s victory in the semis.
“Maccabi is the favorite, this is a Euroleague team with a deep and talented roster,” said Eilat’s Elishay Kadir, who also played for Katash on the Gilboa team that claimed the league title four years ago.
“However, if we manage to be as focused as we were in the semis anything can happen.”