hapoel jerusalem 298.88.
(photo credit: www.hapoel.co.il)
Taking their cue from the constant road construction going on in the capital, Hapoel Jerusalem dug itself a deep hole in the first half in Tuesday night's game against Khimki Moscow, leading to a crushing 85-75 home loss that may have also buried the club's ULEB Cup hopes for this season.
The loss dropped Hapoel to 2-4 in Group C, and with four games left, Jerusalem will need to win at least three of them to have even a mathematical shot at advancing to the next round. Khimki, who were an inexplicable 2-3 coming in to the game considering the talent on the squad, improved to 3-3.
Playing a sputtering offense and practically no defense early, Hapoel fell behind 25-13 after the quarter and by 32-17 midway in the second. Despite some valiant efforts later on, which saw coach Dan Shamir's squad cut the lead to 70-64 with just 2:30 left, a series of annoying misses by Timmy Bowers and other Hapoel players in money time took the air out of the comeback, and perhaps out of Jerusalem's European season.
Not even the electricity generated by the presence of former Hapoel star Kelly McCarty - who didn't even need to have an outstanding night (4 points) for the well-rounded Khimki squad, which featured six players scoring in double figures - could get the juices flowing for Hapoel, which looked listless early on.
Led by big man Ruben Wolkowyski's seven points and the steady play of point guard Melvin Booker, Khimki also benefited from Mario Austin's early foul trouble. Austin's relegation to the bench for much of the first half crippled Hapoel's offense, which Sunday night's hero, Ed Cota, had difficulty quarterbacking. He wasn't the only culprit, however as Jerusalem had nine first half turnovers. Cota sat for much of the first half, and his status with the club is anything but certain, as is the case with Tamar Slay and Jurica Golemac.
As the boos began to be heard from the frustrated fans, Jerusalem staged a comeback, led by Austin and Meir Tapiro, with Tapiro's basket just before the buzzer cutting Khimki's lead to what seemed like a surmountable seven points, 39-32.
Russian coach Sergey Elevich did a brilliant job of using his deep squad, switching from a bigger line-up to a smaller one and back again with great effect. Hapoel, on the other hand, already missing Matan Naor, got very little from its own bench. Overall, the Russian reserves outscored Hapoel's 33-11.
While Jerusalem needed to get back into the game quickly, it was the Russians who were off and running as the second half started, with Ademola Okulaja hitting a three to open up a 44-32 bulge. With Austin experiencing a frustrating night against the big Russian front line and Jerusalem lacking a go-to man they could rely on, Khimki remained comfortably in front, despite Shamir's attempts to find a winning combination.
A basket by Maciej Lampe with just over six minutes to play gave the Russians a huge 70-54 lead, but to their credit Jerusalem finally found the moxie to crawl back into it.
A steal and a hoop by Tapiro, who led Hapoel with 15 points, cut it to just 70-62 with just over three minutes left, and when Austin began to assert himself underneath with a hoop, the Khimki lead was suddenly just six.
But with pressure still heavily on Hapoel, even the normally steady hands came up short. Timmy Bowers, who's usually a sure thing going to the basket, misfired on three separate occasions while driving to the hoop, and the momentum died right there. Bowers and Austin had only 13 points apiece, not enough for an offense-starved Hapoel.
Jerusalem still had a shot when Guy Pnini hit a basket to cut the lead to 76-70 with 55 seconds left, but a Cota air ball and some poor defense down the stretch piled the final dirt on Jerusalem's comeback attempt.
Seven missed foul shots didn't help Hapoel, and Khimki made good use of its free throws, hitting 26 of 29 as part of their aggressive but calm approach to a game they needed as much as Jerusalem. Once again, Jerusalem was beaten on the boards, 41-36, and wasn't always the first to loose balls, either.
Changes may certainly be in the offing before Hapoel travels to Sienna for a game against the Italian squad next Tuesday. For now, Jerusalem fans can only hope their club can find a road map out of the big hole they're in.