Israeli clubs primed for continental playoffs

Maccabi Tel Aviv takes on Real Madrid in Euroleague • Hapoel Holon in Champions League semis.

 MACCABI TEL AVIV have high hopes for bringing home hardware in the Euroleague playoffs. (photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN/COURTESY)
MACCABI TEL AVIV have high hopes for bringing home hardware in the Euroleague playoffs.
(photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN/COURTESY)

It was a banner week for Israeli basketball teams in continental play as Maccabi Tel Aviv finished off the Euroleague regular season with a win ahead of its quarterfinal duel with Real Madrid, while Hapoel Holon won the Champions League quarterfinal tilt against Strasbourg to advance to the Final Four for the first time in club history.

Maccabi Tel Aviv downed Fenerbahce 85-76 as James Nunnally, Ante Zizic and Scottie Wilbekin led the way for the yellow-and-blue to put the finishing touches on a Euroleague regular season that saw Avi Even’s team finish with a 17-11 record.

Maccabi Tel Aviv - in the Euroleague 

With the victory, Maccabi ended the 28-game campaign in fifth place overall in the standings, setting up a best-of-five quarterfinal series with Real Madrid, the fourth-place team. Games 1 and 2 will take place on Wednesday and Friday night in Spain, while Game 3 and, if necessary, Game 4 will be played back in Israel the following week.Should there be a Game 5, it will take place in Madrid on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.

Should Maccabi advance to the Final Four, which will be played in Belgrade, it will face the winner of the Barcelona-Bayern Munich quarterfinal matchup while the other side of the bracket features Milano taking on Anadolu EFES and Olympiacos hosting Monaco.

 AVI EVEN has been the interim coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv for just over a month now and the yellow-and-blue is responding to him in both continental and local play. (credit: DOV HALICKMAN/COURTESY) AVI EVEN has been the interim coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv for just over a month now and the yellow-and-blue is responding to him in both continental and local play. (credit: DOV HALICKMAN/COURTESY)

The yellow-and-blue played a depleted Fenerbahce squad neck-and-neck throughout the majority of the game, but the trio of Nunnally (19 points and seven rebounds, Zizic (16 points and seven boards) and Wilbekin (14 points, six assists and five steals) came up with the key baskets down the stretch to pace the Israeli club to the nine-point victory.

Devin Booker paced the visitors with 14 points while Ahmet Duverioglu scored 12 points in the defeat.

“We won, and this is the first goal that we had,” Maccabi coach Even began. “We weren’t at our best, but I’m happy that we managed to squeeze the last few minutes, to bring more energy, better defense, better execution on offense. We need to learn also to win when we’re not playing great. That’s part of being a good team.”

The interim bench boss also looked ahead to the upcoming quarterfinal series with Real Madrid.

“We still have another journey to go on. There is no question that Real was in better shape at the start of the season, but this is Real and when we play them it’s something different altogether. It’s a series and not one game. We know we can beat them at home and we almost beat them on the road.”

Veteran forward Angelo Caloiaro, who is in the midst of his fourth season with Maccabi, also looked ahead to a tough series with Madrid.

“They are a historic club and we are a historic club and both teams have had a lot of success in Europe. They are very good and we are very good so we are looking forward to it. People have been talking about Real struggling, but they are top four in the Euroleague and in second in the Spanish ACB League. It will be tough but we are ready for the challenge.”

Derrick Williams, who joined the yellow-and-blue at the start of the campaign, will be making his first foray into the postseason since arriving in Europe from the NBA four years ago and is excited to get rolling after a challenging regular season.

“I’m happy that we won and are going into the next round, where we will play Real Madrid. It’s a big step for the club and we have now checked off one of our goals, which was to get to the playoffs. As for the series, it’s two historical clubs that are going to battle once again. They know what’s at stake and we know what’s at stake. We have been working for a long time to get to this point and I think we are ready for the challenge. We are 1-1 against Real and it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Hapoel Holon - in the Champions League

Over in France, Hapoel Holon just slipped by Strasbourg 81-80 to advance to the Basketball Champions League Final Four after completing a 2-0 quarterfinal series sweep to become the first Israeli team to reach the prestigious stage of the competition.

 Hapoel Holon have high hopes for bringing home hardware. The Purples are prepping for the Champions League Final Four. (credit: DOV HALICKMAN/COURTESY) Hapoel Holon have high hopes for bringing home hardware. The Purples are prepping for the Champions League Final Four. (credit: DOV HALICKMAN/COURTESY)

Guy Goodes’s squad came out strong to start the game but the hosts built up a 49-35 lead at halftime.

However, Tyrus McGee began to chip away at the advantage in the third quarter while Joe Ragland scored a number of huge baskets down the stretch, including the winning basket with 11 seconds remaining in regulation time, to take the win.

The Final Four will take place between May 6-8 in Bilbao, Spain, where Holon will tip off against Tenerife, which disposed of Tofas Bursa in two games as well as the Spanish Island squad will look to win its second Champions League title.

McGee led Holon with 21 points, Ragland added 16 points and Johnson chipped in with 15 points in the victory. Matt Mitchell paced the hosts with 24 points and Jordan Howard scored 11 points in the loss.

“Strasbourg played unbelievable in the first half and were very aggressive for any action we did,” Goodes said. “At halftime, I looked at the stats and I said that we are far, far away from our targets. I told the players that if we don’t match their aggressiveness we will lose by 15, 20 or even 30 points. But I am happy that we did it in the third quarter and won that by 15 points and we kept cutting the gap. In the end we had fouls to use intelligently, plus a few big shots and we won the game and made history.”

“It’s a very exciting moment for this club,” veteran Guy Pnini said with a huge smile on his face at the press conference after the Strasbourg win.

“This is my fifth season with the club and we started a process when we joined the BCL. It was tough in the beginning but last year we made it to the Top Eight and it was a very big thing for us. We lost in the quarterfinals and now we made history for the club. Everyone around the team is so excited, management, players and coaches. We all know how big this is for us. The game was two halves, the first was bad and the second we came back. But for us we made history.”

All of the stars aligned perfectly since January for Holon, when Goodes took over as the head coach, and now it can dream about winning a European title in Spain.

“We aren’t talking too much about Bilbao right now as we have time until the games in May,” Goodes explained. “We are fighting for positioning in the Israeli league so there are no days off. I told the guys to go celebrate as we have a long trip back. We want to come to Bilbao and not just show up, we want to go all the way if we can.”