Hapoel Jerusalem 298.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Jerusalem's management brought out four scantily-clad female violinists for its ULEB Cup opener Tuesday night, but it was the players who almost started the European season on a sour note. However, thanks to a couple of clutch foul shots by Jamie Arnold and some fourth quarter heroics from Ramel Curry and Guy Pnini, coach Dan Shamir's club survived its debut, beating Strasbourg 74-73 at Malha Arena.
Despite the victory, however, for way too long Shamir's club looked like an orchestra in search of a conductor. With way too much confusion on offense and still not enough rebounding - despite the home debut of newly acquired Marcus Slaughter, Hapoel was lucky to survive against the not exactly European bluebloods from Strasbourg.
From the outset, nothing came easily for Hapoel. Point guard Will Blalock again had all kinds of problems getting the offense moving, while the athletic French squad ran to an 18-11 lead when the mercurial Eddie Shannon hit a three-pointer. The French big men attacked under the basket with relative ease, and two foul shots by Israeli Afik Nissim gave the visitors a 24-17 first quarter edge, as fans wondered just what kind of European season lay ahead.
But the emerging offensive virtuoso Curry - who was a scoring machine when he played in Italy - found his form in the second quarter, leading Hapoel on a 12-0 run that put Jerusalem up 29-24 with just over seven minutes left in the half. A three by Timmy Bowers had Hapoel up eight, and for once there was some offensive harmony on the court. Nissim asserted himself with a three, however, and Hapoel had to settle for a 36-33 halftime advantage.
An electrical problem forced a delay of the second half, but once it did Hapoel showed it had some juice when Guy Pnini hit a three and Jamie Arnold scored, putting Hapoel ahead 41-34. But the French battled back behind the play of Shannon and Bernard King, whose three-pointer keyed a 9-2 run that tied it at 43. Bad ball handling by Slaughter pulled the plug on Jerusalem, and the French grabbed a 55-53 advantage after three quarters.
Blalock spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench as Shamir went with Dror Hagag at point guard. But it was Pnini who supplied the spark, scoring on a pass from Hagag and then on one from Sharon Sason to put Hapoel back on top at 64-61 with just over five minutes to play.
Curry chimed in with a three, but a flurry of turnovers let Strasbourg stay close until Curry (16 points on the night along with seven rebounds) scored again on a busted play under the hoop, boosting the bulge to 71-65.
Credit the French for not giving up, however, as King calmly sank three free throws after being fouled by Pnini to cut the lead to just 71-68 with 54 seconds to go. However, the Frenchman's steady hand from the line deserted him moments later as he missed two free throws with 32 ticks left, forcing the French to foul Hagag with 9.8 seconds to go.
But Hapoel's difficult night continued when Hagag made only one out of two, leaving his club clinging to a 72-68 lead with 9.8 seconds left. Shannon hit two free throws on the other end, and suddenly Strasbourg only trailed by two. The French chose to foul Arnold (18 points) on an inbounds play, and the former Maccabi Tel Aviv star hit both just seconds before Shannon made a buzzer-beating three, sending Jerusalem off with the one-point win, but also a lot of room for improvement.
The victory in their Group I debut provided hope in the form of Curry's play, but questions remain about Blalock and rebounding, where Strasbourg was on top, 31-25. With more difficult opponents looming ahead, Shamir will have to do some fine-tuning before it's too late.