Tel Aviv teams complete semifinal sweeps, to face off in derby for title

Both the yellow-and-blue and the TA Reds dispatched their semifinal opponents, Hapoel Holon and Hapoel Jerusalem respectively.

 THERE WILL be very little travel in the Winner League finals, with Xavier Munford (in red) and Hapoel Tel Aviv taking on Wade Baldwin (in yellow) and Maccabi Tel Aviv in a best-of-three series, which tips off on Thursday (photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)
THERE WILL be very little travel in the Winner League finals, with Xavier Munford (in red) and Hapoel Tel Aviv taking on Wade Baldwin (in yellow) and Maccabi Tel Aviv in a best-of-three series, which tips off on Thursday
(photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)

The Israel Winner League finals are set and for the first time since 2005, the championship series will feature the Tel Aviv derby as Maccabi and Hapoel will tip-off for Holy Land hoops supremacy on Thursday night.

Both the yellow-and-blue and the TA Reds dispatched their semifinal opponents, Hapoel Holon and Hapoel Jerusalem respectively, via a 2-0 series sweep setting up a clash of titans as arguably the two most talented teams will square off against one another.

The finals are a best-of-three series with Maccabi Tel Aviv holding home-court advantage and will host Game 1 and a decisive Game 3, if necessary, at Yad Eliyahu. Game 2 will be at Hapoel’s home court, the Drive-In Arena in northern Tel Aviv, where the Reds will have a very boisterous crowd waiting for them.

Maccabi overwhelmed Holon in both of their semifinals games, winning Game 1 at home 90-76 and Game 2 112-85 on the road in convincing fashion as Oded Katash’s team looked to be well over its  Euroleague quarterfinal loss to Monaco.

Guy Goodes’s Holon tried valiantly to keep pace with Maccabi and cut the lead early lead to 40-35 in the Sunday night’s second quarter, but a lightning 14-0 run just before halftime set the tone for the balance of the game that saw seven Tel Aviv players notch double-digits, including Bonzie Colson who led the way with 23 points.

 Hapoel Tel Aviv is the third Israeli team for J’Covan Brown, who is in his second season with the club. The 32-year-old American guard is the Reds’ vocal leader (credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)
Hapoel Tel Aviv is the third Israeli team for J’Covan Brown, who is in his second season with the club. The 32-year-old American guard is the Reds’ vocal leader (credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)

As an Israeli and Euroleague rookie, Colson has played above and beyond expectations. The 27-year-old forward leaves everything on the floor, which earned him a two-year contract extension. Blood, sweat and tears is what Colson is all about and that is something both his teammates and head coach appreciate.

“Bonzie is important for us and he does everything on the court,” Katash said. “He is a wing who doesn’t take the ball and create so much, but when he got the ball and he had his shots that means that we played properly as a team.”

Fellow forward Jake Cohen also spoke about Colson in the highest complimentary manner, “Bonzie was excellent. When we get down to these crunch time league games, a lot of it is about the professionalism of the players. For National Team guys like myself and Lorenzo Brown, we have been playing 11 months straight so right now it’s about professionalism.

“Bonzie and Wade, all of our imports were locked in which is a huge part of staying focused in these games and it’s easy to have a lull after the Euroleague. You have to focus on winning the championship and we can’t take that for granted.”

Heading into next season

Heading into next season, Holon will have plenty of time to see what changes will need to be made as it is uncertain that Goodes will continue and there are also a number of players whose contracts are up. Ultimately, the Purples may need to retool in order to once again compete for a championship.

“[Maccabi Tel Aviv] is a good team and a Euroleague team,” Holon captain Chris Johnson said. “Their pace, their size and being able to switch. The main thing for me is to compete for a championship and we won last year but we came up short this year and we have to give Maccabi credit.”

“The matchup was very tough against them in every parameter,” Goodes noted. “We tried to improve but their size, and many other things, it’s just very hard to go up against. Maccabi from the first moment were scoring and used their deep bench. It’s just very hard to play them.”

Katash was thrilled with the way his team was able to finish off the series.

“This was almost a perfect game from us. Of course there were moments we could have played better but we controlled the rebounds, we dished out 34 assists and only turned over the ball five times which is an incredible statistic. We were able to run and play our basketball.  All in all, I’m very content with how we played in this game.”

While Holon is a quality team that advanced to the Basketball Champions League Round of 16 group stages, Hapoel Tel Aviv will be an entirely different story for Maccabi.

The team the Reds have been able to put together this season is as good as any squad that they have had in years and better than the one that went to back-to-back finals in 2004 and 2005.

Whether it has been J’Covan Brown, who is a proven assassin, Jordan McRae, who has all-world talent, last season’s MVP Chinanu Onuaku, star guard Xavier Munford or Israeli MVP Tomer Ginat they will no doubt be able to rival Maccabi’s roster.

Lorenzo Brown, Baldwin, Colson, Alex Poythress and John DiBartolomeo are all formidable top-level players as well on the other side of the court as a series for the ages will potentially unfold.

To punch its  ticket into the finals, Hapoel Tel Aviv had to dispatch the Jerusalem team that knocked it out of the State Cup on its own home court.

After a blowout 86-55 win in the capital city, Aleksandar Dzikic’s squad gave Danny Franco’s team a battle in Game 2 at the Drive-In Arena. But when J’Covan Brown is hot, he can’t be stopped. No matter if he slipped and was limping and in pain for the majority of the game, the guard was stellar as he scored 29 points to propel the host into the final series with a 77-68 series-closing victory.

“I feel excitement,” an exuberant Brown said following the game. “I’m happy that I found some energy to come back in the second half. My heart wouldn’t give up on me, I felt free today. I’ve been through a lot of injuries and if it’s 50-60% I’ll give what I have. I didn’t know if I was going to come back in the second half. Coach, teammates and I love this crowd. We are not going to lay down.”

Franco also looked back at the win.

“We played against both Hapoel Jerusalem and also ourselves. I don’t think we played great and there were many sets where we were under pressure. We didn’t play with the calmness that we did after the first half of the first game against Ness Ziona. This may have not been our best game in terms of basketball but in terms of toughness and defense that is what made the difference for us. We made some adjustments and the guys were able to execute them to perfection. A coach may have many ideas but the trick is to see how the players will execute them. This was a game that we couldn’t mess up like we did in the State Cup.”

Franco spoke about how being eliminated from the EuroCup may have helped this team grow.

“From the start of the season we spoke about the importance of beginning the best that we can. I am happy as to how we have built up this entire campaign and we are right now exactly where we have been all season long. We had a drop after the end of the EuroCup campaign and that is something that happens to every team. Perhaps this helped us as we needed some stress and then knew how to get out of that funk and be present for money time the best that we could be. I have to take off my hat to the staff and the work that we have done to now battle for the title.”

Over on the Jerusalem side, it was clear that the team had still been looking for the energy it was missing since falling in the final of the Basketball Champions League to Bonn.

While they managed to get by a depleted Bnei Herzliya, all of Jerusalem’s  issues came to the forefront versus Hapoel Tel Aviv as it was almost a no contest between the two squads.

“That’s a great team [Hapoel Tel Aviv],” Dzikic began. “Why’s everybody surprised they are winning? They finished their last series before us and they are healthier. It’s very hard when you have 13 sick guys. It’s health, emotionally and you give everything you got in Malaga, or you can put it on me.”

Oz Blayzer also reflected on some of the struggles Jerusalem had.

It’s something that is tough to explain, but it’s very difficult to find the renewed energy after such an event as the Final Four. We played against a team in Herzliya that had nothing to lose and that really zapped us of our energy. It was tough to go up against Hapoel Tel Aviv, especially after their EuroCup run which they had more time to recuperate from.

“It’s very disappointing and we didn’t want to end the season this way. But this is sports and there’s nothing we can do now. We will have to get back to this point and take another step forward. I’m proud of everyone and we had a season that had many ups and downs as well as much that we can really take pride in. Despite the disappointment right now, I hope that the fans had many great moments.”

Jerusalem will see some changes heading into the summer with a new incoming owner Matan Adelson taking over the reins. While Dzikic signed an extension for the upcoming season, anything is possible as players, management and everything surrounding the club may change.

However, for right now, Hapoel Tel Aviv will look to win its first championship in over 15 years and the fans are expected to be a good part of that.

“I went over to Danny and gave him a hug and told him this is what we were talking about in the summer,” Ginat explained. “Hapoel Tel Aviv has to look at itself as a club that wants to reach these goals every season. It’s an incredible accomplishment for the club and we have more to do. We talk about how special this team is and what type of chance we have to do something that we have all discussed for years.

“We have felt that the crowd being with us this season has been something unique. Someone told me that all of our games have been sold out and we can all feel them around us. Those who are here with us understand how important the fans are and we have the privilege to help influence the way people feel. It’s something that can’t be explained.”

“There is a huge fan base here that has not experienced success,” Franco remarked. “The club set goals and is now playing in the final. I feel terrific about this but much of the credit goes to the players and my staff. We did a fantastic job this season and we put together a group that focused on defense and played for one another, which we did exceptionally well. We have an opportunity and we will do everything that we can not to miss out on it. We have a team that is in great shape.”