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The Arkadi Gaydamak era at Hapoel Jerusalem got off to a much rougher start than anyone could have expected, losing the BSL season opener to Elitzur Ashkelon 74-72 Sunday night at Malcha.
With players who earn just a fraction of the salary of the Jerusalem stars, Ashkelon hustled from the start and never let the home crowd or the more-talented host players get to them.
Brian Tolbert and Adrian Pledger led the way with 20 points apiece and Brandon Kurtz stood tall in the middle with 12 points and six assists.
Hapoel point guard Horace Jenkins had 26 points, but committed a key turnover down the stretch. With 30 seconds remaining and Ashkelon ahead by two, he turned the ball over trying to find Mario Austin inside and little Oded Sha'ashoua was first to the loose ball. Sha'ashoua darted down court and converted the layup to make it 73-69.
Roger Mason Jr. helped Jerusalem get back within one with a three on the next play and then Pledger made only one of two from the line with 12.3 tics on the clock to give Hapoel a chance to go for the win or tie on the last possession. But after center Erez Marckovich had trouble getting the ball to the guards, Meir Tapiro tried to force his way through a double-team and wound up turning the ball over, leading to Ashkelon celebrations at midcourt.
"Everyone in blue believed we could win tonight," Kurtz summed up afterwards.
He tabbed young forward Vlade Yermishim, who finished with six points and nine rebounds as the game's MVP and added that his team was extra motivated to perform against the big budget side from Jerusalem.
"You have guys like Mario Austin making $600,000 a year and guys with NBA experience, but I want to prove that Brandon Kurtz is just as good. My goal is to be the best big man in Israel and lead this team to second place and a spot in the Final Four," added Kurtz.
Austin had 14 points and 15 boards for Jerusalem.
It may not be so easy for Ashkelon if the rest of the league saw it in action in Malcha.
Kurtz and co. took a stunning 18-6 lead after just four minutes thanks to relentless play inside by the center Kurtz and effective playmaking from Tolbert. The hosts continued to run, but a cool Ashkelon attack never stopped scoring and held a 24-17 led at the end of the first period.
Jerusalem slowly clawed its way back in the second, eventually tying the game at 36 with three minutes to go in the half on an Austin layup. A minute later Mason gave the hosts their first lead of the game on a three from the corner.
Jerusalem held on for a 41-39 lead at halftime, but Ashkelon would tie it again on the first play of the second half when Kurt fed Yermishim underneath.
However, a Jerusalem run was just around the corner. A Jenkins layup and another Maron trifecta highlighted an 8-0 blitz as the hosts took the lead. Yet Ashkelon never gave up - the visiting side cut the lead to a single digit before the period came to a close.
Ashkelon tied the score early in the fourth and never fell behind by more than a basket. Jenkins put Hapoel ahead 67-64 with three minutes remaining, but Sha'ashoua proved Ashkelon was in it for good when he answered on the other end.
The game remained neck and neck until Jenkins's fateful turnover that gave Ashkelon the advantage for good.
Also Sunday, which was Matchday 1 of the BSL, it was: Maccabi Tel Aviv 110, Maccabi Givat Shmuel 103; Ironi Ramat Gan 76, Hapoel Tel Aviv 64; Bnei Hasharon 101, Hapoel Galil-Golan 85; Maccabi Rishon 89, Ramat Hasharon 70.