(photo credit: AP)
Hapoel Jerusalem is an overwhelming favorite to advance to the quarterfinals of the ULEB Cup on Tuesday night when it takes a 15-point lead into its second leg game against BK Ventspils in Latvia.
Jerusalem comes into the game on a massive high after lifting the State Cup on Thursday and on current form will be expected to book its place in the last eight of the competition for the third time in the last four years.
The last time the team got its hands on silverware prior to Thursday was in 2004 when the side won the ULEB Cup, and any dreams Jerusalem has of repeating its glorious victory against Real Madrid in the final three years ago will need to begin with a successful result in Latvia on Tuesday.
Ventspils has a daunting 21-3 home record in the ULEB Cup and has won its four games in Latvia this season by an average 12 points.
"Winning the State Cup is a huge thing and is a lot fun, but it happens in mid-season, so we need to recover from it quickly," Jerusalem coach Dan Shamir said ahead of Tuesday's game. "There's no problem in playing two good games in a row. It's all a matter of how you prepare the team.
Shamir showed that he was not dwelling on last week's glories. "We need to get ready and practice properly. I believe our players know how to do that. A 15-point margin sounds like a lot but it really isn't. We need to play this game very aggressively and play to win," he said.
Jerusalem opened a 14-point lead against Ventspils in the first half of the first leg two weeks ago.
However a 18-2 run by the Latvians put the visitors in front and Hapoel needed a 30-14 run at the end of the game to give itself a cushion ahead of the second leg.
Ventspils' American guard Eddie Shannon scored 15 points and passed for eight assists in Malha and leads his team in minutes played (32), points (15.2), assists (5.4) and steals (1.7). Shannon is complemented in the backcourt by Justin Love (10.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg), who scored 11 points in Jerusalem and swingman Aigars Vitols (10.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg), who was poor two weeks ago, only making two of his seven shots, scoring a total of five points.
The Latvians will be boosted by the return of center Dusan Jelic (12.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg), who missed the first leg and will also be hoping that fellow big men Darlon Johnson (9.9 ppg) and Kaspars Cipruss (9.3 ppg) improve on their combined 11 point display in Malha.
Ventspils was led in the first leg by 35-year-old forward Uvis Helmanis (9.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg), who scored 17 points and grabbed five rebounds and will need a similar performance from the veteran if they are to have any chance of advancing on Tuesday.
"We're all confident that we can win at home," Jelic told the ULEB Cup website. "We have nothing to lose. I think we have enough experience to do it. Jerusalem is a good home team, but not that good away. It will be very tough to play this game. I think the main thing for us is to score 80-90 points. That's the style of Latvian and Eastern European basketball. They have the upper hand, but we cannot be underestimated."
Hapoel's Dror Hajaj (8 ppg, 2.2 spg) scored 16 points in the first game and his excellent showing was the main reason behind the hosts' late surge that guaranteed the 15 point victory. Mario Austin (17.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg) led all scorers in the first leg with 21 points with Jurica Golemac (10.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) also contributing 16 points and five assists.
Hapoel's play has improved dramatically since American forward Terrence Morris joined the side and his form on Tuesday could be the decisive factor in the battle under the baskets.
Jerusalem will be expecting Timmy Bowers (14.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg) to make up for his dismal two point game in Malha and will like its chances of progressing if Meir Tapiro (12.1 ppg, 3.6 apg, 3.5 rpg) maintains his recent play.
"Ventspils has been on our minds ever since the State Cup final," Hajaj said. "We have a comfortable lead, but they are a strong team which will make life difficult for us."
Hapoel will face the winner of the tie between Gran Caneria and Serbians FMP Zeleznik in the last eight, with Zeleznik leading by a slender four-point margin after the first leg in Spain.
In other ties, Unics Kazan is as good as through to the quarterfinals after defeating Serbians Hemofran by 17 points in the first leg and will likely face Montepaschi Siena in the next round after the Italians won their first game against PAOK Thessaloniki also by 17 points.
Nancy lost to Strasbourg by three points in the French derby and the winner of that tie will either play Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius or Italians Snaidero Udine in the next round. The Italians take a three-point advantage into the second leg in Lithuania.
Real Madrid will be confident of reaching the last eight after beating Alba Berlin by nine points in Germany and will likely face Crvena Zvezda of Belgrade in the next round after the Serbians won their first leg against Khimki Moscow by 12 points.
On TV: BK Ventspils vs Hapoel Jerusalem (live at 7:30 p.m. on Channel One)