hapoel jerusalem 88.
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Hapoel Jerusalem begins its ULEB Cup campaign with a stern test in Russia on Tuesday evening against one of the competition's favorites, Khimki Moscow.
Jerusalem, which won the ULEB Cup in the 2003/04 season, will be hoping to improve on its semifinal exit in last year's competition. A win on Tuesday will be a major declaration of intent of the team's goals this season.
Hapoel replaced its coach in the off-season, bringing in former Maccabi Tel Aviv and Jerusalem assistant Dan Shamir, and also added five new players.
Versatile Slovenian forward Jurica Golemac, veteran point-guard Ed Cota and American Timmy Bowers are three of the new faces who will have a chance to prove their worth against Khimki.
"I'm not pleased with our current situation," Shamir said. "It would be a lie to say that we are looking good. Nevertheless, I am pleased with advancing with ease in the State Cup."
Jerusalem defeated Maccabi Rishon Lezion 95-61 in the first leg of the round of 16 of the State Cup last week, and despite losing in the second leg 71-61, advanced to the quarterfinals on aggregate.
"The ULEB Cup is stronger than last year," Shamir added. "There are some sides that could easily play in the Euroleague.
"Khimki is an excellent team, and although it would have been nice to play an easy team at the start, facing a difficult side forces you to raise your level of play.
"Our goal is to progress as far as possible in the ULEB Cup."
Khimki has an outstanding squad that includes playmakers Gianmarco Pozzecco and Melvin Booker, Slovenian Boris Gorenc and Ademola Okulaja.
The team also recently added three players from the bankrupt Dynamo St. Petersburg side, including Polish center Maciej Lampe and former Hapoel star Kelly McCarty.
The American was the 2004 ULEB Cup final MVP for Jerusalem and visited his former team in training on Monday.
Khimki has won three of its four Russian league games this season and is currently in third place. Ruben Wolkowyski leads the team with 16.4 points per game and has averaged 5.2 rebounds.
"I think that with any game you just have to try and win it whether its home or on the road," Bowers said.
"Unfortunately we have to start off with a road game in Russia, but we just have to go out there and play our style of basketball and get a win."
Mario Austin, who was the ULEB Cup regular season MVP last season, stayed with Jerusalem and will again be the main man on offense. Meir Tapiro, Tamar Slay and Matan Naor are also back, giving the team a strong and deep squad.
"We are ready for the game," Austin said Monday. "We have studied all their players, but it will still be tough. They are a fantastic team which is great on offense. We are here to do the maximum.
"My expectations from last season have not changed, I'm here to win titles and that's still my goal. The season has just begun and we are still molding as a team."
The four top teams in the six groups of the ULEB Cup will advance to the round of 16 that will be played in a home-and-away format. Montepaschi Sienna and Alba Berlin are expected to be the two other teams in Jerusalem's group to advance to the next stage.
However, Academic Sofia and Oostende of Belgium will not lie down without a fight.
Sienna defeated Alba Berlin 79-63 in the opening game of the group on Monday. Academic Sofia hosts Oostense in the remaining group match on Tuesday.
"We couldn't have drawn a tougher first game, but we don't feel like underdogs," Naor said Monday.
"We have come here to fight and give our all. We know and understand that they [Khimki] are a strong side. This is our first test of the season and I hope we do well."
On TV: Khimki Moscow vs Hapoel Jerusalem (live at 6:30 p.m. on Channel 1).