Hapoel Maccabi 298.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Horace Jenkins has been known to party, but nothing can compare to the welcome home party he threw at Malha Arena in Jerusalem Thursday night.
Celebrating his return to the team he played for last season after being reclaimed by Hapoel only last week, Jenkins iced two free throws with nine seconds to play to give Hapoel Jerusalem an 89-88 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv, setting off complete pandemonium on the Jerusalem court.
Yotam Halperin, who kept his team in the game with 29 points, including 6-8 from beyond the arc, missed a jump shot from the left side of the basket that would have won it for Maccabi, who lost their second league game in one week in what was not an ideal way to prepare for next Tuesday night's match-up vs. CSKA in Moscow.
But no one can point a finger at Halperin, who with 20 seconds left converted a clutch three-point play to give his club an 88-87 lead. With the diminutive Jenkins racing up court, Halperin fouled him on the sideline, sending the former member of the champion Detroit Pistons to the foul line for the game-winner, and sending Jerusalem chairman Danny Klein onto the shoulders of jubilant fans who mobbed the court.
Oh, so close had the reds come to defeating the blue and yellow in the past few years, but Thursday night they appeared unwilling to see victory elude them again. Led by the explosive Timmy Bowers, who had 17 first half points and 23 overall, Hapoel raced to an early 9-3 lead, only to see Maccabi come back behind the strong play of Tal Burstein, whose bucket closed the gap to just 27-26 at the end of the hotly contested first quarter.
Enter Jenkins, who hit a three-pointer to open the second quarter, scored off a steal, then hit another basket as Hapoel opened a 37-28 lead. But whenever his club faltered, it seemed Halperin was there to pick them up. A three by Halperin and two impressive hoops by Lior Eliyahu - the second a reverse slam dunk that had everyone in the arena shaking their head in amazement - kept Maccabi right with Hapoel, who went to the locker room with just a 49-46 lead.
With tempers rising both on and off the court - Maccabi Tel Aviv fans standing above Hapoel's basket trading taunts with Hapoel fans seated behind the other hoop - Mario Austin began to assert himself under the basket, then hit a three to open a 72-65 lead for Hapoel with just seconds remaining. But again, Halperin was there, hitting a three from what seemed like eight blocks away at the buzzer to send the tense matchup into the final period with Hapoel up 72-68.
The refs saw to Austin, however, dispatching him to the bench with about a minute gone in the final quarter with a questionable fourth foul call. Maccabi center Nikola Vujcic took advantage of Austin's absence, but Bowers found Terrence Morris open for a three-pointer, then took an incredible bounce pass from Meir Tapiro, who had 15 points himself on the night, to keep Hapoel ahead, 80-76.
Up stood Halperin again, however, knocking down another three to pull Maccabi within one and make Hapoel fans wonder if the gods weren't just teasing them one more time. A drive by Vujcic sank their spirits even lower as Maccabi suddenly led 82-80, using poor shot selection by Hapoel to their advantage.
A hook by Vucic made it even dodgier for Hapoel at 84-81 Maccabi with 2:50 left, but then swingman Guy Pniny, who had five big assists on the night, was fouled shooting a three-pointer. Pniny hit two of three foul shots before Jenkins scored off a steal and Hapoel suddenly led 85-84, with 1:42 left.
That's when the entire game went up in smoke, or more precisely, a yellow smoke bomb, which went off among the Hapoel fans just before Derrick Sharp was whistled for an offensive foul against Austin. Pniny came up with a clutch jumper to make it 87-84 with just over a minute left, but Halperin wouldn't give up. Driving through the Hapoel defense, he hit a lay-up and was fouled with just 54 seconds to play, then calmly hit the free-throw to tie it at 87 all. Those with any fingernails left among Hapoel fans now bit off the last one.
Jenkins missed, and it looked like he might be the scapegoat. Halperin was fouled on the next play, but hit only the first of his two foul shots, perhaps due to the lingering yellow smoke. Then he sent Jenkins - who had 16 big points on the night -- to the line for Horace's big foul shots, which Jenkins bagged. That sent Hapoel fans to the floor to start celebrating a well-deserved, long overdue victory over their arch-nemesis.
For coach Neven Spahija, the loss couldn't come at a worse time, following his team's last minute defeat to Galil Elyon Sunday night and ahead of an important Euroleague match up with CSKA Tuesday night. Besides Halperin, few players on Maccabi looked confident on the court against Hapoel, and Spahija again shuffled his players incessantly, but with disappointing results.
Jerusalem made a serious statement about its intentions in the playoffs with the victory, accomplished without injured sparkplug guard Dror Hajaj or Matan Naor, and took over second place in the league with a 12-3 record, while Maccabi remained in first but dropped to 13-2.