After the remarkable victory over CSKA Moscow in the semifinals, Maccabi Tel Aviv enters Sunday’s Euroleague final against Real Madrid believing anything is possible.
Maccabi trailed from the third minute of Friday’s Final Four semi in Milan until there were just 5.5 seconds left on the clock, including by as many as 15 points late in the third quarter. Despite a valiant fightback, the yellow-and-blue still seemed to be heading to defeat when Sonny Weems gave CSKA a four-point lead (67- 63) with 19.2 seconds to play.
However, David Blu’s three-pointer at the other end was followed by an inexplicable turnover by Moscow’s Victor Khryapa, allowing Tyrese Rice to drive to the basket with 5.5 seconds remaining to give Maccabi its first lead (68-67) since it was ahead 4-2 in the second minute.
Weems could have still secured Moscow a win, but he missed an open shot from beyond the arc at the buzzer and the yellow- and-blue celebrated an incredible 68-67 victory.
Maccabi will face Real in Sunday’s final after Madrid surprisingly outplayed Barcelona in the second semifinal on Friday, thrashing the Catalans 100-62.
Maccabi will be playing in its 15th final, aiming to claim a sixth European championship title in club history. Real will be making a record 16th appearance in the final and will be targeting its ninth championship.
Maccabi and Real will be meeting for the 50th time, with Madrid owning a 29-20 lead.
“We played against a great opponent in the semifinal and we had to go deep to find the resources to win that game,” Blatt said on Saturday. “The game of basketball is wonderful because no two games are the same and during the course of a game you constantly have to search for answers and players have to provide solutions.
“In the end we made some great plays that allowed us to beat a great team. The feeling was special and we will remember it for many years. We came here to try to win. On Friday we succeeded. Our goal will be the same on Sunday.”
Blatt was confident his team won’t get carried away by Friday’s win.
“One of our advantages is that we are humble and hungry,” said the Maccabi coach, who was on the verge of being sacked earlier this season after the team’s struggles in the BSL. “We recognize our limitations and as a unit we have to draw more than the sum of our parts. We have no illusion that in many games we enter as the underdog. We make up for that with character, effort, good play and the belief that any game we stay in we can win.”
Real and Maccabi played each other twice in recent months, with the Spaniards winning both meetings. However, both games were extremely tight, with Madrid triumphing 74-68 at home and 77-76 in Tel Aviv.
Madrid amassed a 21-3 record in the Euroleague regular season and Top 16 before overcoming two-time defending champion Olympiacos in five games in the quarterfinal playoffs. Maccabi can at least draw confidence from the fact that it slowed down Real’s high-powered offense in their two clashes earlier this season.
Real’s Sergio Rodriguez showed why he was crowned as the Euroleague MVP by leading Real with 21 points in the win over Barca on Friday, with Nikola Mirotic scoring 19 points.
Rodriguez has led Real in scoring and assists this season, averaging 13.8 points and 5.0 assists per game in the Euroleague.
Rudy Fernandez (13.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg), Mirotic (12.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Sergio Llull (11.8 ppg, 3.8 apg) all also own a double figure average.
“I think both teams looked great this year and we survived a lot of tough games, difficult trips, injuries... to get to this game,” said Madrid coach Pablo Laso. “When you get to the final, there are no favorites at all.
A basketball game has so many details and small things. There is a lot to consider when you play a final against a team like Maccabi. If you are feeling favorite, you are not very smart. We played two very tough games against Maccabi this season with close finishes. I remember that the game in Tel Aviv went down to the final second and the one in Madrid was decided in the final minutes. I know - and my players know - that it will be a very hard game.”
Over 8,000 Maccabi fans are expected to be in the Mediolanum Forum on Sunday and will far outnumber the Real supporters.
However, Laso is not concerned his players will be overwhelmed by the atmosphere in the arena and is confident his team can make up for last season’s disappointing defeat to Olympiacos in the final.
“The stands will probably be yellow, but we are used to it. We are ready; we played in Tel Aviv already,” he said. “We forgot about the final against Olympiacos after 10 minutes.
I am proud that we are the favorites on Sunday, but we respect Maccabi and I don’t see them as underdogs.”
While Real clinched its progress to the final with one quarter to play, taking a 25-point gap (73-48) into the final frame of its semifinal against Barcelona after ending the third period with a 17-1 run, Maccabi hardly believed it had won even after the final buzzer had sounded.
CSKA seized control from the start, taking a seven-point margin (35-28) into the second half. Maccabi had no solution to Moscow’s defense and found itself down by 15 points (55-40) late in the third quarter.
The yellow-and-blue ate away at the gap as the fourth quarter progressed, but still looked to be on course for a defeat following Weems’s jumper with 19 seconds to play. However, after the miraculous win over Olimpia Milano in the same arena in Game 1 of the playoff quarterfinals, Maccabi never gave up, and recorded yet another incredible victory in an unforgettable season.
Blu led Maccabi with 15 points, scoring five three pointers, with Rice finishing with 13 points and Ricky Hickman and Alex Tyus scoring 10 points each.
Sasha Kaun had 14 points for the dejected CSKA.
“I feel we beat a better team than us and we did it in amazing fashion,” said Blatt.
“There are games that you always remember and this will be one of those for us. I hope we can take that momentum into the final because we will need it.”On TV: Euroleague Final Four: for third place: Barcelona vs CSKA Moscow (live on Sport5+ at 6 p.m.); final: Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Real Madrid (live on Channel 10 at 9 p.m.)