They played racehorse basketball at its best in Malha last night, as Hapoel Jerusalem and Le Mans flew up and down the court in a frenzy - two highly athletic and well-coached teams playing at hyperdrive in a ULEB Cup beauty.
But in the end it was Jerusalem's two thoroughbreds, Horace Jenkins and Roger Mason, Jr. and a young colt named Itzik Ohanon who got Hapoel across the finish line first, leading Jerusalem to an exciting 88-84 victory.
The win gave Hapoel a comfortable 4-2 record in Group D, while Le Mans dropped to 3-3, almost locking up a spot in the next round of ULEB Cup play for Hapoel.
"We talk a lot in the locker room about commitment," said coach Erez Edelstein in the post-game press conference, and that's exactly what he got when things started to get tough for his charges.
Sure Jerusalem had run to an early 18-10 on a drive by the mercurial Jenkins, who Edelstein said is "improving from game to game".
Jenkins added two threepointers to his early scoring explosion and Hapoel rode an aggressive defense - which picked up speedy Le Mans backcourt duo Pape Amagou and Jermaine Guice almost as they inbounded the ball under their own basket early in the game to grab a 26-23 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Just as suddenly as the lead was built, it disappeared in a barrage of three-pointers by the French squad, with one by Junica Ruzic giving Le Mans a 34-29 lead early in the second quarter.
Jerusalem's offense was impatient, while French coach Vincent Collet ably shuffled players back and forth as his team kept one step ahead of Hapoel for loose balls. Ruzic's three-pointer at halftime made it 47-46, Le Mans.
Then came what Edelstein called "our best defensive third quarter so far this season."
Things started out ominously, with Jerusalem forward Tamar Slay, who had played well until then, forced to leave the game after sustaining a nasty cut in an altercation under the basket that required five stitches. He did not return to action.
With Jerusalem down 51-50, Mason hit a three to put them ahead, another hoop, a pair of foul shots and a beautiful drive and Jerusalem was off to the races.
Reapplying the team defense they'd shown earlier and suddenly outhustling Le Mans for loose balls including big center, Mario Austin rolling on the floor for one, Hapoel suddenly got into the kind of zone it showed last week vs Red Star.
When the dust had cleared, Jerusalem had gone on a 23-8 run, outscoring Le Mans 27-12 in the period to hold what looked like a very secure 73-59 lead after three quarters.
Not so fast, though. Former Maccabi Tel Aviv center Huseyin Besok, who heard the "Saddam Hussein" jeers from the crowd, showed he still has plenty left as he keyed a Le Mans rally to bring the French, who beat Hapoel by 12 back in Jerusalem's first European game of the season, back into the picture.
That patient offense went cold, while Besok scored from inside and outside, turning to yell to the crowd after his hoop brought Le Mans back to within 81-77 with just under three minutes to play.
But Mr. Mason restored order on the court. A jumper and a drive upped the lead to 85-77 and another three by the Human Jitterbug, Jenkins, made it 88-79 with 1:10 left, the game seemingly over.
Time ran out on Hapoel on their next possession, and Le Mans had 30 seconds plus to try for a miracle.
That's when the colt, Ohanon, reared up on his hind legs and swatted away an attempted three by Guice from the corner. A last minute steal and a dunk by Kenny Gregory ended it at 88-84.
After the game Ohanon said: "I have to make the most of my opportunities whenever I get them." And that he did with his late defensive heroics and five rebounds in over 13 minutes.
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