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(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Jerusalem's European dream came to a heartbreaking end on Tuesday night after the club lost 88-70 to FMP Zeleznik in the second leg of the ULEB Cup quarterfinals in Belgrade.
Jerusalem could have afforded to lose by eight points after winning the first leg at the Malha Arena 88-79, but a 29-14 fourth quarter by the Serbs ensured the hosts would be the ones to advance to the last four.
"This loss is bitterly disappointing. We tried our best, but Zeleznik played better and was more aggressive," Hapoel coach Dan Shamir said of his team's first loss in two months. "We had a nice run in the ULEB Cup, but the better side advanced."
Jerusalem was led by Mario Austin who scored 24 points, with Meir Tapiro adding 13 points and four steals. However, the team suffered from a poor night by the usually dependable Jurica Golemac and Dror Hajaj, who combined for just eight points. "Our poor second half decided the game," Hajaj said. "We didn't play well tonight and we have no excuse. We met a team that played better than us."
The visitors turned over the ball 19 times during the game and struggled on defense, allowing Zeleznik to shoot 63.4% from two-point range.
"It was an extremely emotional game for us. We played from the beginning as if every possession on defense and offense was our last of the game," Zeleznik coach Vlada Vukoicic said.
Dragan Labovic led the hosts with 23 points, including four of four from beyond the arc.
Hapoel began the game well and took an early lead (5-2) thanks to Tapiro's three-pointer. However, the hosts answered back with a 10-2 run and slowly ate away at Jerusalem?s first leg cushion. A thundering dunk by Austin with three and a half minutes left in the quarter brought the visitors within one basket (16-14), but Hapoel failed to stop Zeleznik on defense and Predrag Samardziski's tip-in gave his side a 27-18 lead after 10 minutes.
Despite losing its first leg advantage within one period, Jerusalem's players didn't drop their heads and went on a 9-0 run to start the second quarter. The visitors improved on the defensive end and FMP only scored its first points of the period after three minutes.
Neither team could manage to open a substantial lead in the remainder of the quarter, but Jerusalem continued to hold the overall lead thanks to its first leg win. Austin's dunk from Tapiro's excellent assist gave the visitors a 38-35 lead with a minute remaining in the half, but Zeleznik, which avenged a crucial loss to Hapoel two years ago that allowed Jerusalem to make the finals of the ULEB Cup, scored the last five points of the period and was up by two points (40-38) at the interval.
Tapiro's three at the start of the second half regained the lead for Hapoel, but after he turned over the ball twice in the next minute the hosts were ahead 44-41. Austin's amazing three-pointer midway through the period gave Jerusalem a 52-51 advantage, but five consecutive points by Labovic put the hosts in front once more.
Timmy Bowers made sure the visitors only trailed by three points (59-56) at the end of the third quarter and kept his team ahead in the aggregate score.
Tapiro brought Jerusalem within two points (61-59) with his three at the start of the fourth period, but in the subsequent minutes the visitors totally lost control of the game.
Zeleznik raced to a 16-3 run that was capped by Aleksandar Rasic's lay-up, giving his team a lead (77-62) from which the visitors could not return.
Hapoel only trailed the hosts by 11 points (77-66) after Bowers stole and dunked the ball, but that would prove to be as close as the Israelis would get. Jerusalem only managed to score four more points in the game to the Serbs' 11, and the hosts comfortably booked their place in the semifinal with an 18-point win.
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