It was never close. In fact it was never going to anything other than a Hapoel Jerusalem win the minute the Reds boarded their flight home last week after their Game 2 loss at AEK Athens that saw fans attacked, players stunned and a club with a resolve that was unbreakable and with one mission and goal in mind:Advance to the Basketball Champions League Final Four at any cost.
And that’s exactly what Hapoel Jerusalem did with an overwhelming 91-51 virtuoso performance to humble its Greek opponent.
Jerusalem made sure there was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who was going to come out of the quarterfinal series with the ticket to the competition’s crown jewel event, one that can very well find itself being held in the Holy City in early May.
Levi Randolph, who led the BCL in points last season, has had other roles this year but with the biggest game of the campaign to date, he made sure that everyone would remember that he could score bucket after bucket. So much so that Randolph led the Reds with 25 points along with Khadeen Carrington, who notched 15 points, and Siim Sander Vene, who dropped 13 points in the blowout runway victory.
Joining Jerusalem in the Final Four are ACB squads Malaga and Tenerife along with Bonn from Germany.
“We want to thank the fans for coming out to support us,” Randolph said after the game. “It was an amazing atmosphere and we’re looking forward to seeing more games like this for the rest of the season. This win is a testament to my teammates and staff as we fought hard and came out with the victory.
“We hope we can host the Final Four and we appreciate the support. We always want our home court to be like that, but we have to take care of business in between the lines and we did that, I wouldn’t want to go to war with anybody else.”
As for his 25-point showing, scoring the ball was something that Randolph was more than happy to do, but ultimately that was only a piece of the puzzle for the swingman.
“It felt good and it’s been something that my teammates encouraged me to do when they told me to be aggressive from the start. But I came here to win basketball games and I’ll do whatever it takes to do that. Today was scoring, but next game it could be rebounds…It happened to be me today, but it can be anybody. I just want to win.”
A sea of red that encompassed the Jerusalem Arena as the Hapoel crowd was deafening to get the game underway with brimstone and fire.
Randolph had the hot hand early for Hapoel Jerusalem while Brynton Lemar went from deep for a pair of 3-pointers for AEK, but Mareks Mejeris knocked down two from downtown and Carrington also dialed up long distance to put the hosts in front 18-7 after 10 minutes.
There had been plenty of off-court activity prior to the game as most of the talk ahead of the contest hovered around the incidents by the AEK fans in Greece during Game 2 of the quarterfinal series which resulted in a heavy Jerusalem defeat setting up the do-or-die third game.
The Basketball Champions League handed down a harsh penalty which will see the Greek club play every continental clash behind closed doors next season as well as a 50,000 Euro penalty. Jerusalem was issued a minor fine of 3,500 Euros for their fans’ extracurricular activities.
Lemar and Vladimir Jankovic scored for Ilias Kantzouris’s squad to begin the second quarter, Zach Hankins came back with a pair in the paint, Sander Vene also found points from deep, Randolph dunked while Speedy Smith went from the inside and the outside give Aleksandar Dzikic’s team a 43-22 lead at halftime.
Plenty of celebrities and politicians graced the courtside seats and made their way to the VIP room during the quarter-hour break in action, as the likes of Chef Asaf Granit, comedian Hanoch Daum, musician Evyatar Banay along with current Jerusalem owner Eyal Homsky, the club’s previous owner Ori Allon and the future owner Matan Adelson. Add into the mix Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, Sports and Culture MK Miki Zohar and his predecessor Hili Trooper and the reds attracted the who’s who of Israeli society.
Carrington began the third quarter with points, Akil Mitchell added a deuce of his own as did Lemar and Jankovic to try and get the visitors back into the game, but Randolph kept finding the bucket and Vene added a basket to give Jerusalem a commanding 59-36 advantage heading into the final frame.
The crescendo of noise increased with each break in play and with each timeout as the AEK bench was inundated by fans screaming, yelling and taunting at the highest pitches known to mankind. Israeli flags of all sizes, large and small were seen throughout the arena as the antisemitic incidents from last week would not be forgotten.
Vene and Carrington led off the fourth quarter with triples, Mitchell put in a layup to try and stem the ride but Randolph came back with yet more points, Brandon Brown scored his first bucket of the game, Vene found nothing but net while even youngster Noam Yaacov solved and diced his way through the AEK porous defense.
But it was Randolph who stole the show when he paraded around the court with an Israeli flag to the delight of all in attendance.
“Everyone came to support us. This was a huge game and we represented the entire country. We wanted to give back to the fans and come out of here with the win.
And that’s what they did, as the fans departed the arena in song and dance that lasted throughout the night.
Hap TA ousted from EuroCup
In other European action, Hapoel Tel Aviv fell to Badalona 82-74 in a valiant EuroCup quarterfinal effort to end its continental campaign in Spain.
The Reds fell into a big hole early on in the game, but battled to take a 70-69 lead late in the contest. However, they couldn’t hold on as the hosts took the winner-take-all contest.
J’Covan Brown scored 21 points while Jordan McRae added 17 points for Tel Aviv in the loss.