All that was missing was some wrapping paper and a bow on the gift-wrapped 100-98 victory over Hapoel Jerusalem that Maccabi Tel Aviv walked out of Malcha arena with Monday night.
In keeping with the Hanukka holiday, the referees handed coach Pini Gershon's club the win with some controversial calls down the stretch, snuffing out any hope Jerusalem had in its first encounter this season with the reigning BSL and European champs.
Even if those decisions had gone in Hapoel's favor, the yellow-and-blue mounted an impressive comeback in the final period. Trailing 84-76 as the fourth quarter began, Maccabi rode 29 points by Nikola Vujcic and two huge three-pointers by reserve Sharon Shason to keep bragging rights in the enduring rivalry between the two clubs.
The victory kept Maccabi perfect in league play at 8-0, while Jerusalem dropped to 6-2.
If there were any justice in Jerusalem last night, however, it would've been coach Erez Edelstein congratulating his team for a victory, rather than saying in a post-game interview that his "hat was off" to his club for its grit against Maccabi in a courageous but losing effort.
But when it counted, justice - in the form of the referees - was indeed blind as an apparent unsportsmanlike foul on Hapoel's Mario Austin, shoved hard by Vujcic with just 20 ticks left, wasn't whistled.
The difference wasn't only no technical foul shots for Hapoel at a crucial moment, but also no extra ball possession. Austin added injury to insult by missing both foul shots before yet another questionable call went Maccabi's way.
Dribbling across court as time ticked down and Jerusalem defenders furiously hounded him, Anthony Parker slipped as he crossed midcourt in what appeared to Hapoel fans to be a clear traveling violation. But instead of giving the ball back to Hapoel with about 15 seconds left, the refs whistled a foul on the hosts, and Maccabi maintained control of the ball and, ultimately, the game.
"Kite season is supposed to be in the spring, not in the winter," complained Edelstein, a reference to the referees waving for play to continue despite what appeared to be several flagrant fouls on Hapoel drives to the hoop earlier in the second half.
Earlier it looked like Jerusalem, which Edelstein insisted is "still a work in progress," had all the firepower necessary to shoot down the champs.
The jammed arena certainly had the necessary heated atmosphere, with everyone from former coach Sharon Drucker and former icon Doron Sheffer on hand, and Sheffer lighting the Hanukka candles.
Jerusalem's attack was nearly as hot early, mostly from three-point range. Hapoel hit a trio of them early on to grab an 11-2 early advantage it held through the first half (55-50).
Roger Mason, Jr. had four of the three-pointers, while Mario Austin (18 points, 14 rebounds) refused to back down in the paint and Horace Jenkins made Hapoel fans forget Will Solomon, who now plays for Maccabi.
Before the game Solomon purposely walked over to the basket closest to Hapoel's wildest fans to warm up alone, hitting nothing but net as they chanted "Who's Solomon?" to their grinning former hero. Ultimately he had a quiet night, with just five points in 25 minutes, and was ineffective guarding Jenkins.
Indeed, Jenkins, Austin and Meir Tapiro had Hapoel comfortably ahead at 84-76 when Shason came off the bench to hit calmly two huge threepointers to bring Maccabi back to within 84-82.
The previously patient Jerusalem offense got sloppy (Jenkins had seven of
Hapoel's 11 turnovers on the night) and the players' legs tired on defense. Still, another three by Mason had Hapoel clinging to a narrow lead (89-88) with just over four minutes to play.
Hapoel still had a chance as Tamar Slay made one of two foul shots to give it a 96-95 lead. However, down the stretch it was the veteran Vujcic, who shot a sizzling 12-for-17 on the night, converting a threepoint play that gave Maccabi a 98-96 lead with 30 seconds left that it never gave up, thanks to a little help from the striped shirts.