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After 27 games and almost seven months of regular season play, the 2006/07 BSL season reaches its climax over the next three days in a championship-deciding, single-elimination Final Four.
Hapoel Jerusalem faces Bnei Hasharon and Maccabi Tel Aviv plays Hapoel Galil Elyon-Golan in Tuesday's semifinals at Nokia Arena, with the winners facing each other on Thursday night in the title game.
In the first of Tuesday's semis, regular season runner-up Jerusalem will be looking for its third straight victory against No. 3 seed Bnei Hasharon. Hapoel defeated Effi Birenboim's team by two points in each of the clubs' last two league encounters and thrashed the Sharon squad by 18 points in the State Cup Final in February.
Both teams have suffered from erratic form lately, with four of Jerusalem's seven losses this season coming in the last eight games. Bnei Hasharon has also split its last eight matches, but, like Hapoel, has also won its last two BSL games and will be entering the Final Four in a confident mood.
"Our entire season rests on the results of the next three days," Jerusalem coach Dan Shamir said. "We've experienced every possible scenario in our four meetings against Bnei Hasharon this season and anything is possible in one Final Four game."
Jerusalem, which averaged 94.4 points per game this season, is led by its strong front line of Mario Austin (19 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game) and Terrence Morris (13 ppg, 7.1 rpg), with Meir Tapiro (10.3 ppg, 4 assists per game) and Dror Hajaj (10 ppg) dictating the play from the perimeter. The well-balanced Hapoel squad also includes Timmy Bowers (14.1 ppg), Horace Jenkins (10.7 ppg), Guy Pnini (8.8 ppg) and Jurica Golemac (7.5 ppg), but will nevertheless face a tough challenge against Bnei Hasharon's fantastic five.
The unstoppable Lee Nailon (20.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg) leads Birenboim's men, with Cookie Belcher (14.9 ppg, 3.7 apg), Jason Williams (13.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Ousmane Cisse (11.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Moshe Mizrahi (10 ppg) completing the lineup.
"It was not a foregone conclusion that we would reach the State Cup Final and the Final Four this season," Birenboim said. "We've come a long way since the start of the season and we've got a good team which has character and believes in its own ability."
In stark contrast, the Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Galil-Golan showdown is expected to be far less competitive.
Maccabi, which has won the last 13 league championships and 36 of the last 37, only lost two of its 27 games in the regular season, and each by a single point.
Galil, which sneaked into the Final Four thanks to a dramatic 100-99 victory over Ironi Nahariya, will draw confidence from the fact that it was one of the two clubs which got the better of Maccabi this season. Hapoel defeated Tel Aviv 90-89 at Kfar Blum two months ago, but will know that Tuesday night's encounter is of an entirely different nature.
March's meeting was a meaningless fixture for Maccabi, but on Tuesday, everybody involved is aware that only victory will do for the perennial champion.
"Nobody expected Galil to reach the Final Four and I'm happy to play against a legend like Oded Katash once again," Maccabi coach Neven Spahija said.
Tel Aviv, which leads the league with 99.2 ppg, was given an unexpected boost on Monday after Lior Eliyahu was declared fit for the Final Four after recovering from a thumb injury.
The key for Galil will be the play of three very different players, Yogev Ohayon (9.3 ppg, 4 apg), Chester Simmons (19.2 ppg) and Kenny Adeleke (15.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg).
For the northerners to have any chance, Ohayon will need to dictate the game from the back of the court, Simmons must help Galil score when points are hard to come by and Adeleke will have to dominate under the baskets.
"Maccabi are obviously the favorites, but we will do our best," Galil captain Avishai Gordon said. "We will fight for every ball, give our all and pray."