Bnei Herzliya did the unthinkable and knocked Maccabi Tel Aviv off its throne as the Israel Winner League basketball champs, coming back from an 0-1 hole to take their semifinal series 2-1.
After a Game 1 loss, Oren Aharoni’s squad recorded two spectacular performances to send the yellow-and-blue to the golf course, while Herzliya punched its ticket to the finals with a dominating 96-74 road win on Wednesday night.
Herzliya will now face the winner of the Hapoel Holon-Hapoel Jerusalem series, which was decided in a Game 3 late Thursday night that finished after press time.
On Wednesday, the visiting took the bull by the horns and walked right into Yad Eliyahu, a place that it had not beaten Maccabi Tel Aviv in all season long and put the hammer down right from the get-go, taking a quick lead and never looking back in a showing for the ages.
Many fans may be surprised that the yellow-and-blue imploded against Herzliya as it is considered to be the creme a la creme of Israeli basketball, but for those who have watched Maccabi all season long the defeat comes as no surprise.
The same can be said about Herzliya, as anyone who has watched them play this campaign knew that it sports arguably the best player in Israel in center Chinanu Onuaku, who had another incredible 25-point-15 rebound-5 assist showing in the series clincher.
Onuaku, whose brother Arinze was a one-time Maccabi Tel Aviv player, was able to do as he pleased in the paint, scoring at will against a soft defense that looked as if it had very little interest to mess with the big man.
What is even more telling about Maccabi’s poor interior defense is that Herzliya scored 44 of its 96 points in the paint. Add to that a demolition on the boards to the tune of 42-33 and you have a recipe for success on one side and disaster on the other.
But the real secret to Herzliya’s success isn’t just Onuaku inside, but the entire team, which sports multiple players in double-digits every single game as it moves the ball around at lighting speed, always looking for the open man and the best opportunity to score.
The Herzliya players rarely, if ever, just chuck the ball up and hope for the best, a troubling pattern that Maccabi Tel Aviv simply couldn’t get away from.
“It’s a key for us as who we are, our identity,” Aharoni explained. “We are a team that likes to play together and the best players like to make everyone around them better.”
Not in Aharoni’s wildest dreams did he ever think that his team would be able to walk into Maccabi’s home arena and not only close out the series but close it out by over 20 points, along with taking two of three games against a Euroleague team.
“I could have never dreamed of such a result,” noted the Herzliya bench boss. “I was prepared for a tough game and that Scottie Wilbekin (22 points) would take on a lot. But that is the greatness of our team, to be able to do the right thing at the right time. We were so focused all game long other than a mistake here or there. The players executed and they deserve a huge amount of credit.”
“It’s a key for us as who we are, our identity. We are a team that likes to play together and the best players like to make everyone around them better.”Oren Aharoni
After the Game 1 loss, Aharoni had been second-guessed as to why the club started Hooker, who had not played in some time due to an injury, in place of DJ Cooper, who had been excellent in his stead.
But the coach believed that this was the right move for the team and he was more than justified after winning the series and seeing Hooker run the offense like a well-oiled machine despite having missed a significant amount of time.
“I’m really thankful,” Hooker began. “It was a long, tough few months and I have a great staff that helped me get back.”
Over on the Maccabi side of the ledger, there was plenty of disappointment coming from the entire club after the loss, knowing that the yellow-and-blue won’t win a fifth Israeli league championship in a row.
The squad had some issues all season, with plenty of good games and performances to go along with, well, some that left plenty to be desired.
Avi Even, who moved from the scouting department to take over as the interim head coach after Ioannis Sfairopoulos was let go in the middle of the season, did the best that he could. However, his inexperience on the bench along with a wet-behind-the-ears staff didn’t do the club any favors.
While Maccabi went on a great run to get into the Euroleague playoffs as it took advantage of the Russian clubs being suspended, at some point that momentum was bound to run out and that is what occurred against Herzliya, as some of Maccabi’s players looked as if they were treating the playoff games – in this case, a do-or-die match – as a regular-season contest.
“When we got back into the Israeli league from the Euroleague playoffs, we had issues,” Even said. “Our energy level dropped after those games. It was a season with lots of ups and downs and we didn’t have consistency. While we had some great games in the Euroleague and huge wins in Barcelona, we also lost in the cup semifinals and are now in a playoff series.”
One of the main problems that plagued Maccabi was the inconsistency which saw it go on numerous streaks throughout the season, both good and bad. Another issue was the lack of commitment by some of the players, which was seen on numerous occasions and was something that Even spoke about time and time again.
Finally, and perhaps most critical, was the lack of chemistry within the team, as veteran Israeli forward Jake Cohen said following the game when asked if he could elaborate on what captain John DiBartolomeo alluded to a couple of weeks ago by saying that the team’s issues were beyond basketball.
“It’s something that we’ve been struggling with all year. I’ll have a better answer once I’ve stopped playing, but I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus. We didn’t have the chemistry as a team and it’s very hard to overcome. It’s something that has bothered me all season.”
As Maccabi will now look to pick up the pieces and bid adieu to many of its players and welcome in new ones, the yellow-and-blue will also be looking to bring in a new coach for the upcoming season, and a number of names have already begun to float around.
One of those names should be Aharoni, Herzliya’s coach, who worked in the Maccabi youth department for many years and will now try to do the unthinkable by winning the league title.
“Playing in the final is new for me,” Aharoni said. “We had a lot of peaks this season and we have played some very tough games along with winning the Israel State Cup. We have such a great bunch of guys. They are players who come and work hard every single day and never miss a practice, do the video work that they need to and do whatever they need to. We have gone on such a good journey with players who are so committed.”