Allon sinai 88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
From the very start of the season Maccabi Haifa has faced the endless and unfair comparisons to last year's champion Hapoel Holon.
Like Holon, Haifa was also newly promoted from the National League, and similarly, it wasn't content with just survival in the BSL and declared from the start of the season that anything but qualification to the Final Four would be a disappointment.
However, with Holon becoming only the second team in 39 years to dethrone Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, it was unreasonable to expect Haifa could end this season with the league title.
Nevertheless, Haifa proved on Tuesday night that it is the one team which can get the better of Tel Aviv in the title game on Thursday night and deny it the championship for an unbelievable second straight season.
There were many impressive aspects to Haifa's thrilling overtime victory over Hapoel Jerusalem in the semifinals on Tuesday night.
But the fact Haifa hit 11 three-pointers in the first half, as well as Doron Perkins and Davon Jefferson combining for 46 points and 21 rebounds, were by no means the most striking part of the team's win over Jerusalem.
What was so remarkable about Tuesday's victory was the never-say-die manner in which it was achieved.
Haifa seemed to be in complete control of the encounter after opening a 53-39 halftime lead, and was all but cruising to the win when it took a 68-55 lead into the final 10 minutes.
Maccabi had the best defense in the league in the regular season, conceding an average of just 75 points per game, and was surely confident it could hold off Hapoel in the final period of the semifinal.
However, Jerusalem blitzed Haifa in the first six minutes of the quarter, scoring 21 unanswered points, and Maccabi looked to be down and out.
There seemed to be no way in which Haifa could recover from squandering such a comfortable lead so late in the game and the Jerusalem fans had already begun celebrating their team's place in the final.
But just when the game looked to be completely lost, Haifa dug deep and pulled itself back into the game by any means possible, as true champions do.
Haifa lost confidence in its shooting so it forced its way to the free-throw line in the fourth period, scoring 12 of its 16 points in the final 10 minutes from the line.
Avi Ashkenazi's men refused to give up and continued to fight hard, and after forcing overtime, made the most of their second opportunity and clinched the win.
Haifa will be a clear underdog against Tel Aviv on Thursday night, but it was also the underdog on Tuesday against Jerusalem and we all know how that semi ended.
Ashkenazi will need a lot to go his team's way if Haifa's to get the better of Maccabi and claim an historic league title.
However, Haifa will have more than a decent chance to defeat Tel Aviv on Thursday as it possesses the character of a champion, a quality which simply can't be taught and is at the foundation of every winning team .