hapoel holon brian tolbert 248.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
For the first time in 14 years, a team not named Maccabi Tel Aviv or Hapoel Jerusalem will have the honor of lifting the State Cup at the Nokia Arena on Thursday night.
Hapoel Holon faces Maccabi Haifa in the most unexpected final match-up since Bnei Herzliya defeated Holon 88-77 in 1995.
Holon defeated Ironi Nahariya 79-76 in the semifinals on Monday, but the surprise of the night came in the second semi, in which Haifa stunned two-time reigning cup holder Jerusalem 67-66.
A Moshe Mizrahi basket with 2.4 seconds to play gave Haifa the victory and booked the team's place in the final for the second time in its history and for the first time since 1985.
Despite playing without its star, Doron Perkins, Haifa dictated the style of play on Monday night with its trademark defense. Amit Ben-David stepped into Perkins' shoes and performed admirably, scoring 10 points and dishing six dimes, including the winning assist, in 37 minutes on court.
"We may be placed higher in the league standings, but that is meaningless in the cup. Both teams entered the semifinals as the underdog," Ben-David said. "This is a one game scenario and anything can happen."
Haifa coach Avi Ashkenazi admitted that his team's defense will be crucial, but refused to say that his side is the favorite on Thursday night.
"This is my first time in a cup final and I'm very excited. We're an excellent defensive team, as we proved against Jerusalem," Ashkenazi said. "I don't think we're the favorites against Holon, even though we defeated them in league play earlier this season.
"This is a different Holon and we're playing without Perkins. The teams are equally matched."
With its leading scorer out on Monday, Haifa got crucial contributions from Brookes Sales (14 points and 10 rebounds) and B.J. McKie (11 points), with captain Ido Kozikaro adding seven points and taking 10 rebounds.
"We said at the end of the semifinal that the job isn't complete yet," Kozikaro reiterated.
"Resolute defense is our middle name and we will have to stop Holon's excellent scorers."
If the relatively high-budgeted Haifa's reaching of the final was a surprise, than Holon's participation in Thursday's game, considering what the club has gone through in the last nine months, is nothing short of astounding.
The club, which has lost all of its five previous cup final appearances, was in ruin after owner and coach Miki Dorsman left, but amazingly managed to raise a sufficient budget and is now just one win away from adding to last season's historic championship title.
"The guys have made a massive effort to reach the final and they can be proud of themselves," coach Danny Franco said. "With the title being decided in one game, we know anything can happen, as we saw in the semis."
The key to Holon's 79-76 semifinal victory over Nahariya was its play down the stretch.
Hapoel held its nerve much better than Nahariya and got significant contributions from three of its foreigners, Luis Flores (20 points), Brian Tolbert (18 points) and Deron Washington (11 points), with the only relic from last season's championship winning roster, Chris Watson, adding eight points.
"This is a very special night and it's very exciting because I used to watch it on TV and now I'm on the court," Watson said. "I never thought that the chance to win a second title would come around so quickly."