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(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Jerusalem took a significant step toward qualifying for the knockout stages of the ULEB Cup by defeating Academic Sofia 85-62 at Malha Arena Tuesday night.
The victory was Jerusalem's second straight in continental competition, and the side seems to be approaching the consistency it has lacked.
The hosts trailed by as many as nine points in the first quarter, but a good second period saw Hapoel grab the lead.
"I'm very happy with the way we played in the last 30 minutes of the game," Hapoel coach Dan Shamir said. "We showed a lot of effort and fighting spirit and defended properly."
Mario Austin dominated under the baskets, and his 23 points and 12 rebounds were vital in Hapoel's second-quarter breakaway. Meir Tapiro added 16 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, with Timmy Bowers scoring 15 points. Dror Hajaj scored 12 points and in a rare defensive display had 11 steals.
"I think we played consistently well for the full 40 minutes for the first time this season," Tapiro told The Jerusalem Post. "Our current goal is to get to the next round. We've got two games to go and I hope we continue to play at this level. The team was under a little bit of pressure as a result of our poor recent play.
"However, I'm happy with our improvement and we will continue to try and pull ourselves out of the slump."
Jerusalem will resume its ULEB Cup campaign after a short winter break when it visits Oostende in Belgium on January 9.
Ritse Stefanov led Sofia with 13 points, with Todor Stoykov adding 12 points and Lamont Jones getting 11 points in his first meeting against his former side.
Jerusalem looked absentminded at the start of the game and only took its first lead of the night (8-7) after six minutes. Sofia regained the lead immediately and a Mate Skelin layup capped a 10-0 run that gave the Bulgarian side a 17-8 advantage. Hapoel scored the last six points of the period.
Jurica Golemac scored a three-pointer at the start of the second period and excellent post-up play by Austin put the hosts back in the lead (25-23). Jerusalem's American center continued to control the paint and Tapiro's buzzerbeater at the end of the half gave Hapoel a 39-33 lead.
Jerusalem began the second half with eight unanswered points and for the first time had a comfortable lead. However, Stoykov scored two consecutive three-pointers that put Sofia within four points (52-48) after a 15-5 run.
Two straight baskets by Tapiro ended Sofia's run and a Hajaj three in the final seconds of the period gave the hosts a 61-48 lead that broke the visitors' spirits.
Good defensive play in the fourth quarter by Jerusalem, especially Hajaj, helped it build the lead. A Guy Pnini three gave Hapoel a 74-52 lead and it coasted to victory.
Jeremy Last contributed to this report.