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(photo credit: Channel 10)
A Horace Jenkins free throw with 0.7 seconds to go helped Hapoel Jerusalem see off a spirited challenge from Maccabi Rishon for a 66-65 win that sets up a much-anticipated BSL final against perennial champion Maccabi Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv reached the final by downing Ironi Nahariya 85-72 in the second game of the BSL Final Four on Tuesday night at Nokia Arena.
In Thursday's final, Jerusalem will seek its first-ever league championship, while Tel Aviv, winner of the last 12 titles and 36 of the last 37, hopes to lift the championship plate for the 46th time.
With a Final Four format replacing the traditional best-of-five series for the first time to determine the champion, both games were tense encounters, with the underdogs from Rishon and Nahariya never quitting. However, the excitement didn't reach the stands. Despite the BSL Administration's marketing efforts, which included importing cheerleaders from Ukrainian club BC Kiev, barely 4,000 spectators were seated for tipoff of the first game and there were at least 2,000 empty seats at the start of the nightcap.
Jerusalem was forced to dig deep and despite playing one of its worst games of the season, scraped through thanks to an excellent display by Tamar Slay (18 points, 14 rebounds) and abysmal free throw shooting by Rishon. Guy Goodes's charges, which lost all three games against Jerusalem during the regular season, shot an abysmal 12-of-33 from the free-throw line (36.7 percent), effectively squandering any chance they had of an upset.
Jerusalem seemed to have had the match won midway through the final quarter when it led by as many as 13, but countless mistakes, combined with a determined Rishon team, meant that Hapoel needed a final-second free throw to advance.
"I can not remember the last time I was part of such a poor game," Jerusalem coach Erez Edelstein said after the game. "We made every possible mistake and almost gifted Rishon the game. I'm pleased we are in the final, but I'm aware that this level of play will not be enough against Tel Aviv."
Rishon was this season's biggest surprise and wasn't far from making a shock appearance in the final.
"We were hoping to wreck the classic final between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but we couldn't pull it off down the stretch," Rishon coach Guy Goodes said. "I'm glad we never gave up and fought until the end, but unfortunately it wasn't enough to qualify for the final."
Hapoel was the more composed team at the start of the game and opened up an early lead. Rishon stayed close to Jerusalem despite its poor free-throw shooting and the first quarter ended with a three-point Hapoel lead (17-14).
Two minutes into the second quarter, Jerusalem star Mario Austin (11 points, nine rebounds) picked up his third foul and was sent to the bench. Despite missing its best player, Hapoel managed to increase its lead and ended the half with a 32-25 advantage.
Rishon began the second half with a 10-0 run and opened up a small lead. Hapoel stayed in touch and a basket by Roger Mason (nine points) midway through the period renewed its lead. The teams remained close with Hapoel still having the slight upper hand at the end of the third quarter.
Jerusalem seemed to have broken free of pesky Rishon at the start of the fourth quarter when it opened up a double-digit lead for the first time in the game. Five minutes before the end of regulation, the game seemed won when Hapoel went ahead 60-47. But Jerusalem turnovers combined with Rishon's newfound scoring touch tied the game with two-and-ahalf minutes to go.
Hapoel almost threw away the game once again when Or Eitan stole an errant Meir Tapiro pass and promptly drilled a three pointer to tie the game at 65 with 17 seconds remaining.
Rishon decided not to foul and tried to hold Jerusalem scoreless on the final possession to force overtime, but Jenkins's penetration couldn't be stopped and he eventually drew a foul from Ryan Sydney. The Hapoel point guard, who finished with 12 points, missed the first, but, with the pressure mounting, made the second to secure a spot in the final.
Lee Mathews had 14 points, eight rebounds and three blocks for Rishon, while John Gilchrist added 13 and Sydney had 12 points, nine boards, five assists and four steals. The team's star and Jerusalem Post MVP award winner, Omar Sneed, finished with nine points and nine rebounds, but he struggled to make his shots, going 4-for-17 from the field.
Maccabi Tel Aviv 85, Ironi Nahariya 72
Tal Burstein scored the game's first six points and Nahariya missed its first five shots as Maccabi surged ahead. But after trailing by eight, the men in purple regrouped and got back in the game with Alvin Young - who was 0-for-4 from the free-throw line at that point - bringing his team within 19-17 with a three at the end of the opening period.
Nahariya took its first lead in the first minute of the second period on a Cory Carr trifecta and went up 30-27 on an Otis Hill three-point play midway through the quarter. But Will Solomon and Maceo Baston accounted for all the points during a 9-0 run that put Maccabi ahead for good. Tel Aviv held onto its lead, which grew to 46-39 on a one-handed Baston slam, at halftime.
Nahariya was able to hang around for a few more minutes into the second half, but eventually Maccabi, prodded on by former star Sarunas Jasikevicius in the stands, found the recipe to advance once more to a title game.
Baston led Maccabi with 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Anthony Parker finished with 16 points and seven assists. Solomon scored 15 and had four steals, Burstein had 13 points and 10 rebounds, and Nikola Vujcic added 10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
Jayson Wells led Nahariya with 17, Young added 16 and Hill 15.