After an appalling first-half offensive display, Hapoel Jerusalem broke out in the second half on the way to a 74-56 win over Lottomatica Roma on Tuesday night at Malha in the second leg of the ULEB Cup quarterfinals to book a spot among the last four in the competition.
Jerusalem overcame an eight-point deficit from the first leg last week in Italy and will now face the mighty Russian side Dynamo Moscow in the semifinals. Jerusalem will host the first leg on March 21 and travel to Moscow one week later. The two teams met twice already during the regular season with each team winning comfortably at home.
Hapoel won the 2004 ULEB Cup title, but did not get past the group last season.
Trailing 28-25 at halftime, Meir Tapiro and Mario Austin shined as Hapoel scored on its first five possessions in the third quarter as part of a 12-2 run to take the lead. However, it wasn't until back-toback three-point plays by Ido Kozikaro and Tamar Slay near the end of the third, followed by a Roger Mason Jr. trifecta as the third period buzzer sounded put the hosts up 54-42, that the barrier from the first game was overcome. Tapiro added a three and Mason a jumper to start the fourth, capping a 14-0 run that put Roma away for good.
"We knew from the first game that a few baskets in a row would take [Roma] out of the game," Jerusalem coach Erez Edelstein said.
Edelstein acknowledged that his team's offense was sub-par in the first half, but he was pleased with the overall effort.
"The Greek referee [Spiridonus] told me that this game was played at a Euroleague level," he said. "Our defense was amazing and that's what kept us in the game."
Hapoel held Roma to 28 points in each half with stifling defense. The team also came up with eight blocked shots.
Only two visiting players scored effectively - the legendary Dejan Bodiroga put on a classic display on his way to a game-high 21 and Marko Tusek added 14. The team's leading scorer, David Hawkins, was held to six.
Roma coach Svetislav Pesic, a former Euroleague winner, explained, "We've played 18 games in the last 60 days and we didn't have the mental energy to fight in the second half."
Tapiro came off the bench five minutes into the game and took charge from that point on. He finished with 20 points and five assists to lead Jerusalem.
Mason added 15, Austin 11 and Horace Jenkins and Slay scored 10 each.
After the game, Jenkins embraced team president Arkadi Gaydamak, pointed to the fans and told him, "This is what it's all about."
"That's a great team out there," Jenkins said of Roma. The guard, who played in the Italian capital two years ago, added, "We showed character."
Everyone in red was already thinking ahead to Moscow, despite the fact that the team's first chance to hoist a trophy is only days away. Hapoel meets rival Maccabi Tel Aviv on Sunday in the State Cup final.
"We're not even half as good as we can be," Austin said.
Edelstein already hit Gaydamak up during the postgame press conference to help bring Russian Jews to support Hapoel in Moscow. He then asked the team president if he'd arrange "a deal for these fans," referring to the 3,000 that crammed the arena for the contest.
It didn't look like Moscow would matter in the early going. Jerusalem missed five of its first six shots and committed seven turnovers in the first quarter as it fell behind 11-3. But the aforementioned defensive effort allowed the team to climb back and remain close until halftime.
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