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Effi Birenboim is on the verge of rewriting history. After leading Bnei Herzliya to a historic State Cup win in the 1994/95 season, the veteran coach will guide his current club, Bnei Hasharon, in a surprise final showdown against Dan Shamir's Hapoel Jerusalem Thursday night at Nokia Arena.
Israel's largest basketball arena is already sold out, despite fan-favorite Maccabi Tel Aviv being knocked out in the semifinals by Bnei Hasharon on Monday.
About 5,000 Jerusalem fans are expected to provide their undying support, while 4,000 Bnei Hasharon loyalists will try to disrupt harmony and witness another surprise.
"We really pulled off one of the greatest wins in State Cup history on Monday," Birenboim said ahead of the final. "But we have to remember that there is another obstacle to cross and it's not going to be an easy one. I appreciate the press stepping up its interest in us lately, but there is still work to be done."
In Bnei Hasharon's 94-87 victory, Maccabi Tel Aviv, State Cup holder for the last nine seasons, had no reply for Birenboim's shrewd game plan and was eliminated despite a gallant fourth-quarter effort.
The surprise finalists will have their work cut out, as Hapoel Jerusalem also has a rich history in the competition. The reds registered back-to-back State Cup wins in 1996 and 1997, and also reached the final under Birenboim in the 1998/99 season. Jerusalem has finished as runner-up a total of five times.
Jerusalem's defensive strategy will focus on seasoned forward Lee Nailon, the league's most prolific scorer and one of the most dominant foreign players to ever have played in Israel. The former NBA player was on fire against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Monday, finishing with 31 points and shooting a solid 53% from the field.
Nailon decided to make the move to Europe last summer, after being waived by the Philadelphia 76ers, where he failed to impress last season. The forward's best season in his NBA career came two years ago with the New Orleans Hornets, when he averaged 14.2 points and 4.4 rebounds.
"Bnei Hasharon is a quality team with many good players," Jerusalem center Erez Markovitch commented. "They beat Maccabi Tel Aviv because they were the better team. We also lost to them earlier this season, so this is not going to be an easy game. But I think that our crowd can make the difference this time."
Hapoel Jerusalem is going through a turbulent season so far, after replacing many of its key players over the summer and hiring former Maccabi Tel Aviv assistant Shamir. The young coach and his charges had a poor start to the season, but they seem to be back on track now as team chemistry improves.