The countdown to the biggest game in the Israeli BSL season has begun.
Hapoel Jerusalem will face reigning European and Israeli champions Maccabi Tel Aviv tonight at the Malha Arena.
Jerusalem can move into second place, just a point behind Tel Aviv, with a win.
The mutual animosity between the clubs has reached new heights in recent weeks.
Hapoel President Arkadi Gaydamak, who has never been as vocal about Hapoel Jerusalem as with the Betar Jerusalem he owns, broke his silence ahead of this muchawaited game.
"I know Maccabi has been one of the best teams in Europe for years now, and Hapoel Jerusalem is in for a tough game," the Russian-Jewish tycoon said. "But in sports, everything is possible."
When asked about the idea of bringing back former coach Pini Gershon for a second stint at Malha, Gaydamak replied, "I have not considered this option."
Maccabi Tel Aviv is beginning to impress after a slow start to the season, with two convincing away victories in the Euroleague.
The game will feature a fascinating match-up between Jerusalem's Horace Jenkins and Tel Aviv's Will Solomon.
Jenkins started off the season very badly, but has slowly found his touch and is averaging 18.3 points per game.
Solomon was a key player in the Jerusalem team that won the ULEB Cup in the 03-04 season, and it will be interesting to see how the Malha crowd receives him as a Maccabi Tel Aviv player.
Maccabi has a perfect 7-0 record this season and Hapoel Jerusalem also is unbeaten since the first round surprise home loss to Hapoel Ashkelon.
Solomon is adjusting to his new role in the Maccabi system after some poor performances.
He tried to play down the significance of the game.
"This is not the biggest game of the season, because we have another 30 games ahead of us," he said.
The rivalry between the clubs started about ten years ago, when Jerusalem beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in two straight National Cup finals in 1996 and 1997â€š with sharpshooter Adi Gordon playing a major role in the two upsets.
The competition did not materialize beyond that, but in a league in which Maccabi Tel Aviv has won 45 championships and 35 National Cups such rivalries are scarce.
Hapoel Jerusalem has made some impressive signings such as Mario Austin, Horace Jenkins, Tamar Slay and Roger Mason since Gaydamak became President last summer and began ploughing cash into the club. Meir Tapiro's re-signing added some much needed on-court leadership and has turned Jerusalem into a force to reckon with again.
Elitzur Ashkelon 86, Hapoel Tel Aviv 70
Hapoel Tel Aviv made an impressive 7-2 run in the opening minutes on Sunday night, but Moshe Mizrahi answered with two threepointers to reduce the deficit to 25-21 at the end of the first quarter.
Ashkelon turned the tide in the second quarter with the help of Bryan Tolbert, who led the hosts to a 46-39 lead at half time. Tolbert scored 29 points in the game.
Igor Simien was off target for the visitors and failed to impress. Gili Mozinson was out-rebounded all night by Brandon Kurtz.
The hosts led by as many as nine points in the third quarter, and Hapoel Tel Aviv retaliated with an 11-0 run to make it a two-point game at the end of the quarter (57-55).
But Tel Aviv failed to maintain the momentum and managed to score only two points in the first four minutes of the final quarter. Matters got worse when a technical foul was called on coach Efi Birenbaum.
Ashkelon took full advantage, with Kurtz dominating the boards and Mizrahi, who finished with 21 points, making some crucial baskets to put the game beyond Tel Aviv's reach.
Markus Hatten scored 23 points for the visitors. Roger Ferrington added 16 points.
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