(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Nikola Vujcic made his first preseason appearance for Maccabi Tel Aviv on Monday night in the team's 94-81 victory over Maccabi Rishon Lezion in the quarterfinals of the Winner Cup at Malha Arena in Jerusalem.
The return to form of the Croatian center has come just on time for the perennial Israeli champion which faces Le Mans in its Euroleague opener next Thursday.
Vujcic, who missed almost all of the yellow-and-blue's preseason because of a finger injury, scored seven points for Tel Aviv, with Marcus Fizer leading the team with 22 points. Tel Aviv faces Ironi Nahariya, which defeated Bnei Hasharon 81-77 on Sunday, in the semifinal on Wednesday.
"Any time Nikola touches the ball it's a sheer pleasure," Maccabi coach Oded Katash said. "The link-up play between Vujcic and Fizer is lethal. No team in the country can match-up against the both of them."
Despite the victory, Katash was far from pleased with his team's form. "We didn't play well throughout the entire game. We have a lot of weapons, especially under the baskets, but we failed to reach them," he said.
Vonteego Cummings eighth point of the first period gave Maccabi a 15-3 lead, but Rishon came right back and was up 24-22 at the end of the quarter.
Rishon maintained its lead until halftime (41-40), however, Tel Aviv went on a quarter ending 15-3 run and stayed ahead until the end of game.
"We opened the third quarter poorly and allowed Derrick Sharp to score three pointers that gave Tel Aviv the lead," Rishon coach Adi Azulai said.
"We built a team for the BSL and not for teams like Maccabi Tel Aviv."
Also on Monday, Hapoel Afula/Gilboa defeated Hapoel Galil Elyon 89-85 to book a meeting with Hapoel Jerusalem in last four of the Winner Cup on Wednesday.
Tunji Awujobi led Afula/Gilboa, scoring 19 points and grabbing eight rebounds, with Lamont Jones adding 14 points and seven assists. Clif Brown scored 24 points and took 10 rebounds for Galil, with Yogev Ohayon contributing 23 points, seven assists and seven steals.
Afula/Gilboa raced to an 8-0 lead and was ahead by 13 points at the break (49-36). The team extended its advantage to 18 points (60-42) six minutes into the second half, but a stunning 19-0 Galil run completed an unlikely comeback.
Afula/Gilboa, however, answered back with a 14-0 run of its own and regained its stranglehold on the game.
Galil managed to come within two points (87-85) in the dying seconds of the game, but the Afula/Gilboa players held their nerve to reach the last four.
"We dominated the game throughout and I'm glad we won," guard Amit Ben-David said.
"We had some ups and downs that allowed Galil back into the game, but we eventually completed the win."