Hapoel Eilat downed Maccabi Tel Aviv 91-85 in Winner League action at the Red Sea city as the hosts played superb ball to drop an uninspired yellow-and-blue over the 40 minutes of play.
Ariel Beit Halachmi’s squad took the game right to the defending league champion with a 52-point first half as his short seven-man rotation featured six players in double-digits to notch a win that was never in doubt.
Casey Prather and Jonathan Skjoldebrand paced Eilat to a 52-40 lead after 20 minutes, but Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s team tried to mount a comeback and pulled to within 84-80 late in the game.
However, Joe Ragland scored a layup while Markel Brown and Prather hit their free-throws to help Eilat secure the well-deserved win.
Prather led the way for Eilat with 23 points, Ragland added 15 points and 13 assists, Josh Nebo also checked in with 15 point and 11 rebound double-double while Brown scored 14 points in the win.
Ante Zizic scored 20 points and grabbed 11 boards for Maccabi, Tyler Dorsey added 20 points and Oz Blayzer scored 10 points in the loss.
Nebo reflected on the win in modest fashion.
“This was a great, balanced team effort. Everybody competed and contributed to the win.”
Sfairopoulos focused on his side’s defensive deficiencies.
“We didn’t play good defense and allowed our opponent to play their game, their rhythm,” explained Sfairopoulos. “They took advantage of our turnovers and scored on fast breaks, easy points. We need to be mentally ready to fight from the beginning because as you saw in the first half we were not ready to fight.”
Omri Casspi, who made his return to domestic league play after being out of commission for almost two months due to a stomach issue, spoke about getting back into the swing of things on the court.
“I feel better and I had a crazy month-and-a-half with this issue. I am happy that I returned to play and I hope that we will be able to play better basketball going forward and win these types of games. We’ve had a lot of bad luck this season and have lost a lot of games that we could have won, but lost at the end”
In other action, Bnei Herzliya got by visiting Ness Ziona 82-79 in a game that saw the host hold its rival to just six points in the second quarter as it went into halftime with a 43-34 advantage and never looked back.
Coty Clarke played all 40 minutes for Sharon Drucker’s squad in the win as the star swingman checked with 15 points and seven assists. Max Heidegger added 20 points and Elijah Thomas scored 12 points as Yair Kravitz chipped in with 11 points.
Wayne Selden led Brad Greenberg’s team with 22 points, Jerome Meyinsse put in 18 points while Patrick Miller added 11 points in the loss.
Heidegger, who continues to have a stellar season as one of the top Israelis in the league, spoke about the victory.
“I think today was really important for us as a team battling back from adversity and being able to pull out a win against a good team. I think it was big, especially coming off the Maccabi game in which we didn’t play our best. But Coty [Clarke] is huge for our team, he plays basically 40 minutes night-in, night-out. He is a great player and leader for us as a team and he’s a huge reason why we have been able to turn this thing around.”
In Euroleague play, Maccabi Tel Aviv will face two stiff tests this week as it hosts perennial title contender CSKA Moscow on Tuesday night and will welcome Spanish squad Valencia on Thursday. Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s team will try to keep its mathematical chances for a postseason slot alive as it currently sits in 14th place with a 10-14 continental record.
With 10 games remaining, the yellow-and-blue has to finish in the top-eight in order to claim one of the coveted playoff positions, but in order to do that it will need to leapfrog six teams, which won’t be an especially daunting task.
Maccabi does has a pair of games in hand after having two matches postponed in February due to the airport closure in Israel, but with teams like Valencia, Zalgiris, Baskonia, Villeurbanne and Olympiacos all in front of the yellow-and-blue, chances are slim-to-none to accomplish what today looks like a near-impossible feat.
The one thing that Maccabi does have going for it as the club heads into this decisive week is the return of the fans to the Yad Eliyahu stands for the first time in close to a year, since the start of the pandemic.
With the supporters making their return, Maccabi is hoping that anything will be possible and that even with 300 fans, the amount allowed by the Ministry of Health, the club will feel their presence and help the yellow-and-blue get back on the winning track.
Over the years, Mac TA faithful have been critical to the club’s success as they not only cheer their local heroes on, they help distract the opposition, and this may be the biggest weapon at their disposal for the balance of the home clashes.
Casspi is very much aware of the power that the fans could wield as the continental season heads into the stretch run.
“We have two game this week and we will prepare for each one at a time and see what will be at the end. It was great to play in front of fans in Eilat and I am excited for Tuesday because with our fans at home we can beat any team.”