Hapoel Jerusalem’s teamwork shines through

Reds embody their coach's hard-nosed, all-for-one approach to topple Maccabi Tel Aviv in State Cup final conquest.

 HAPOEL JERUSALEM players celebrate on the court following their 67-61 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv in the State Cup final last Thursday. (photo credit: Dov Halickman)
HAPOEL JERUSALEM players celebrate on the court following their 67-61 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv in the State Cup final last Thursday.
(photo credit: Dov Halickman)

It’s all about being a “team” – that is what Hapoel Jerusalem has preached since the summer time when Aleksandar Dzikic was named as the team’s head coach. Team, team, team.

There are no individual stars, no one player who is above anyone else. But lots of parts that together unify as a team, a collective of players who thrive together as one. That is exactly what helped lead the Reds to an unexpected 67-61 triumph over Maccabi Tel Aviv in the State Cup final.

Each and every player hoisted the cup aloft to the delight of the fans who packed into the Jerusalem Arena to fete their heroes and their floor general Dzikic.

The system just works

The players have all fallen right in line behind the Serbian bench boss. He has been able to lead Hapoel to the promised land and as he has convinced the players to buy into a system that, simply put, just works.

“Work” is the key word here, because that is what Jerusalem did for all 40 minutes on the floor in Thursday night’s final. Hapoel outworked Maccabi in each and every statistical category, but above all it emerged superior in all the intangibles, the things that don’t show up on the scoresheet at the end of the day.

 ALEKSANDAR DZIKIC has his Hapoel Jerusalem players on the same page and each taking turns to shine when needed. (credit: Dov Halickman) ALEKSANDAR DZIKIC has his Hapoel Jerusalem players on the same page and each taking turns to shine when needed. (credit: Dov Halickman)

Every 50/50 ball, every rebound, every defensive possession, every coach’s decision… and the list goes on and on.

It was an absolute checkmate by Dzikic over yellow-and-blue head coach Oded Katash and by every player from 1-12 on Jerusalem’s roster over Maccabi’s.

On paper, Maccabi Tel Aviv was better in the vast majority of talent in almost every position, but in reality Hapoel Jerusalem showed bigger heart, bigger effort and bigger desire, and it was ultimately the one to accept the winner’s trophy.

As cliche as it is to say in sport, at the end of the day, Hapoel Jerusalem just wanted it more.

“We had to match the energy, get the rebounds and hold them to scoring less points,” Dzikic said of Maccabi following the game. “That means bodies, athletes, size and skills. The domestic parts of the team are good and they are national team players.”

Jerusalem was able to do just that and more to chalk up the win.

“Coach always preaches about our system, our defense, and we know we can lock everybody down,” said Hapoel big man Zach Hankins, who is rumored to be signing an extension with the club.

The State Cup MVP, Speedy Smith, also spoke of Dzikic’s impact.

“Coach had a game plan and the way he laid it out to us was through constant discussions.”

In fact, Smith is one of the players that Dzikic brought in after having played a short stint in Israel during the coronavirus-hit 2020 season with Maccabi Haifa. The 30-year-old point guard has been able to raise the level of his game thanks to the bench boss and was a huge part of the final win, with 16 points and nine assists. One teammate after the next labeled Smith as the on-court leader and, in effect, an extension of Dzikic.

“Speedy is the leader. Great guy first and foremost and he works hard. He is great,” Jerusalem captain Itay Segev said.

Oz Blayzer agreed wholeheartedly about the assessment.

“Speedy is the leader. People look at stats, but don’t see what Or [Cornelius] did when defending Wade Baldwin and Lorenzo Brown.”

Smith himself credited Cornelius, who also embodies the coach’s hard-nosed approach on the court and epitomizes the Reds’ style of play.

“Or was amazing and with his defensive actions he changed the game a lot tonight," said Smith.

This is what a true team is, “one for all and all for one” with each and every player crediting the other.

What Blayzer and Smith said of Cornelius has been true all season long. He has been  a key component game in and game out and that is why he is on the Israel National Team for the upcoming window of games.

His effort and impact was evident time and time again by getting right under Brown and Baldwin’s skin, limiting the pair to just a combined six of a team total of nine assists in the game, which is as many as Smith had alone.

No answers by Katash

Katash was unable to find an answer to Dzikic’s moves and was one step behind play after play.

“We got to the final and played against a team at home, it’s not that we were very big favorites,” said Katash. “We knew that there would be pressure on the guards and we have to learn from it and we have to keep our heads up and move on.”

The pressure caused the yellow-and-blue to choke up the ball time and time again as Baldwin was caught short on the shot clock a couple of times and Jerusalem forced Maccabi into bad shot selection time and again. It is unlikely that Katash’s game plan had Jarell Martin and Rafi Menco taking so many shots as the clock neared its end.

Katash couldn’t figure out a way to get better opportunities for his shooters, be it John DiBartolomeo or Jake Cohen, who didn’t even make his way onto the court. The game plan didn’t work and Katash’s only rabbit out of the hat was 39-year old Guy Pnini being thrown into the fire when the bench boss saw that nothing was going his way.

Prior to the game, DiBartolomeo was asked about his legacy and the importance of winning another cup to add to the only one he won as captain against a depleted Maccabi Rishon Lezion team a couple of years ago.

Unfortunately, that poor record heading into the final took yet another hit.

All in all, the Israeli contingent for Maccabi scored a grand total of six points, the lowest ever in a State Cup final for the yellow-and-blue, while a Sabra it had last season on its roster who is now a part of Jerusalem - Blayzer - scored 12 points himself in the win.

“I like these games where everything is at stake,” exclaimed the Israeli forward. “This is why I am here, to fight, battle and win titles. Two to go.”

Former Maccabi and now Hapoel captain Segev was more than satisfied as he collected his thoughts following the game in the lockerroom.

“My first time lifting the trophy with this team as captain and I’m hoping for many more. I think we take advantage of our strengths and we want to be the team that concedes less. Maccabi is more talented, but we battled. We came ready to the State Cup games. We showed our strong side and, while it was a hard fight in the semifinals, at the end we got the title.”

Hankins was thrilled for Segev getting the opportunity to win the title.

“Itay has had to take a role some guys don’t like taking, but each time he is on the floor he gives his all. I am so proud of him. The way he can play defense, he does change the game.”

Youngster Noam Yaacov, who was a key part of the Reds’ semifinal win over Hapoel Haifa, was overwhelmed to have won a cup with his father present so early on in his career after being loaned out by Villeurbanne to Jerusalem.

“This is why I am here. My dad is always with me no matter what. He is always behind me pushing me forward. He came for the cup week and I am really happy he did.”

Together with Yonatan Alon, Yotam Halperin and the rest of the Jerusalem staff, it’s been one winning move after the next as Dzikic has conducted the orchestra to perfection. Does winning the State Cup mean that Hapoel can beat Maccabi in a final series? The bench boss is not yet certain, but regardless what the Reds have done is show everyone in Israel that the club has the know-how to win when it comes down to crunch time.

“They [Maccabi] are a great team, as is Hapoel Tel Aviv,” Dzikic said. “We still don’t understand and are trying to process what happened. In a series it’s tougher, but in a 40-minute game it’s easier and maybe we don’t win this same game if played tomorrow.”

Hankins, who made it clear that he would like to stay with Jerusalem going forward, knows that while Hapoel won the State Cup it had a huge league game coming up on Sunday night against Hapoel Holon, who will be looking for revenge after a devastating Basketball Champions League loss.

After a big high, it’s very easy to slip and the center knows that first hand, having experienced it earlier in the season.

“There is amazing energy here, I love it here and I love this coach,” said Hankins. “I would not mind staying here not one bit. We had struggles and coach will do everything to hold us to that standard. It feels amazing to win and it shows what we are capable of. We showed that we can be the best team in Israel, but we need to consistently show it. They can keep underestimating us, but we beat Maccabi every time this season. We are a family and we can keep going up. If you look at the last time we beat Maccabi, having that dip after taught us an important lesson.

Smith, for his part, just wants to keep winning games when it counts. With one title in the bag and the BCL and Israeli league still to go, Jerusalem’s guard has his sights set on bigger accomplishments.

“It’s unbelievable, but it’s only a small taste of the biggest one. One out of three, two more.”