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(photo credit: Toms Kalnins/EPA)
Hapoel Jerusalem's European campaign enters the final stretch Tuesday night when the team hosts Serbian club FMP Zeleznik in the first leg of the ULEB Cup quarterfinals.
Jerusalem will be looking to gain a significant lead ahead of next week's return leg in Belgrade, but will face a club that has lost only two of its 12 games in the ULEB Cup this season.
The tie is a rematch of the 2004 ULEB Cup semifinal which Jerusalem won in nail-biting fashion on its way to lifting its one and only Continental title.
Jerusalem has won its last nine games in all competitions, but hasn't played competitive basketball in nine days and will be hoping it hasn't lost its winning touch during the lengthy break.
"We are coming into the game with good momentum and we want to maintain it," Hapoel coach Dan Shamir said. "We showed in the previous round that it doesn't matter if the first game is at home or away. Since the first game is at home, we must use it to build a sizable advantage.
"FMP is a very young side, but has achieved good results all season. In fact, the team has barely lost. We have more experience, but they've shown that they can beat more experienced teams. We don't want this to be our last ULEB Cup game in front of our fans this season and we will do our best to ensure one more."
The average age of Zeleznik's all-Serbian squad is 21. Coach Vlada Vukoicic meticulously splits the playing time between his men, with no player averaging more than 24 minutes.
The Serbians' leading scorer is sharp-shooter Branko Cvetkovic, who averages 14.3 points per game in 24 minutes of play. Cvetkovic will likely come off the bench on Tuesday night, with Aleksandar Rasic (10.3 ppg, 3.8 assists per game) and Bojan Krstovic (7 ppg) expected to start.
"The main weapon Hapoel has is its home support," Cvetkovic told the ULEB Cup Web site. "Hapoel fans are their sixth player. I heard there is absolute madness in their court when Hapoel plays.
"Our goal is to limit Meir Tapiro, Timmy Bowers and Mario Austin. They are the most dangerous, but there are more good players like Jurica Golemac, Ed Cota and Dror Hajaj. The first game in Jerusalem is the key. I think our defense could be a decisive factor. We have to be patient and clever."
Unlike many of Jerusalem's previous opponents, FMP will have the height and muscle to handle the hosts' big men under the baskets.
Zoran Erceg (11.7 ppg, 3.4 rebounds per game), Dragan Labovic (10.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and Predrag Samardziski (6.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) will relish the challenge of facing Austin (18.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Golemac (10.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.2 apg) and Terrence Morris (5.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg). They will hope to deny Jerusalem from dominating the paint in the way it did in the first elimination round against Latvian club Ventspils.
Zeleznik will also need to contain Bowers (14.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Tapiro (12.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.7 apg), who combined for 30 points and 22 rebounds against Ventspils in the second leg.
"Jerusalem is very experienced," coach Vukoicic said. "The starting five is about 30 years old and is much more experienced than my players.
"Hapoel won the Israeli [State] Cup and showed they are ready for the two games with us. We proved our quality so far in the ULEB Cup and we believe we can progress further."
Hajaj (7.7 ppg, 2 steals per game) has been one of the main factors behind Jerusalem's recent winning streak and, despite Zeleznik's inexperience, he refused to underestimate the team.
"They are a very young and talented club, which won the Serbian State Cup," he said. "They had one of the best records in the regular season and are a very strong side.
"Even though they are young, a lot of their players have had at least one season in this competition, which is more than some of our guys; experience isn't necessarily only about age."