Hapoel Jerusalem in Greece for BCL Final 8

Revamped Reds face Burgos to start tournament, with sights set on capturing continental title

AMERICAN FORWARD Malcolm Hill signed with Hapoel Jerusalem last month. The 24-year-old University of Illinois alum should give the Reds an injection of scoring, beginning with this week’s Champions League Final Eight tournament in Greece. (photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
AMERICAN FORWARD Malcolm Hill signed with Hapoel Jerusalem last month. The 24-year-old University of Illinois alum should give the Reds an injection of scoring, beginning with this week’s Champions League Final Eight tournament in Greece.
Hapoel Jerusalem will face San Pablo Burgos on Wednesday in the Basketball Champions League Final Eight tournament at the O.A.K.A. Arena in Athens as the Reds will look to win their first continental title since 2004.
The Basketball Champions League season was paused in March due to the coronavirus just as Oded Katash’s Jerusalem squad defeated Peristeri in a round-of-16 matchup.
Although the composition of most of the teams in the tournament are different from what they were back in the spring, the desire to hoist the trophy is nonetheless the same for all eight teams. Should Hapoel get by Burgos, it will face the winner of the Turk Telekom-vs-JDA Dijon game on Friday with the tournament final slated for Sunday.
While Jerusalem brought back a number of players from last season’s team, there are also some new additions, including a few who are just signed through the end of the BCL Final Eight. Returning for Katash’s team are point guard Tamir Blatt, forwards Suleiman Braimoh and Deividas Sirvidis, who joined the team for the end of last season, and centers TaShawn Thomas and Idan Zalmanson. Also back is J’Covan Brown, who was named captain but is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury.
New recruits include forward Adam Ariel from Maccabi Rishon Lezion – who knocked Jerusalem out of last year’s Final Four with a dramatic three-pointer as time expired in the semifinal – forward Niv Baloul, who also came over from Rishon, and point guard Adi Cohen Saban who arrived from Hapoel Beersheba. In addition, guard Tarik Phillip joined the club from Tofas in Turkey, Malcolm Hill moved from Astana in Kazakstan to the Israel capital, while guard Chris Kramer came aboard after playing with Khimki Moscow.
A pair of players are signed just through the end of the tourney, as center Luka Mitrovic from Manresa and veteran share shooter Nikos Pappas from Panathinaikos add depth to the squad.
Hapoel Jerusalem has gone undefeated so far in its preseason games, but experienced a scare when Thomas got a bit banged up in the team’s Winner Cup quarterfinal clash with Hapoel Eilat. However, Katash says that he’s ready and that the Reds will look to come home with the title.
“The main thing is that TaShawn’s injury isn’t serious,” noted Katash. “Preparing for the tournament hasn’t been simple compared to other teams as we have been training much more intensively as we had to do a lot more in a short period of time. We did what we had to do and I hope that we will have a good game on Wednesday. I hope that we will return from Athens on the later side and that when we get back the country will be done with the lockdown.”
Hill, who has proven to be a top scorer after finishing last season in the VTB league as the runner up in that category just behind former NBA standout and European star Alexey Shved of Khimki, also feels that the squad is coming into the game in prime form.
“I think we are good hands and the trainers and doctors are doing a god job getting the guys who are a bit banged up in shape,” said Hill. “That has also provided other guys the chance to step up and get better. I think we are pretty confident.”
The dynamic 24-year-old small forward is also aware that he may be counted on to pick up some of the scoring slack for Jerusalem while in Athens.
“I’ll have to see how the game goes. I kind of take what the defense gives me. I try to focus on what I can do most for the best of the team. If that makes me the X-Factor then that’s cool, but it could be any other player. Right now I am just going to focus on using skills to the best of my ability and see how that works out.”
Jerusalem needed to pack in a lot of preparation in a very short period of time, but Katash feels that despite this they are in good shape.
“Our schedule has been busy and our preparation time much shorter. Our goal is to give ourselves an opportunity to win just like the rest of the teams. I don’t believe that there are any big favorites, despite Burgos having played well so far in the ACB. They are playing excellent basketball, but in one game anything can happen just as we are familiar with here in Israel.”
“It feels good to be put in the position to have the opportunity to win the title and that’s the goal,” said Hill. “In order to accomplish that goal we are trying to get better and we’ve been doing a good job with that in practice and in the scrimmages.”
Katash knows that Jerusalem made a number of changes in the offseason and that the team may not be as strong as it was when it was challenging for the championship back in March, but that there is always a chance to do the unthinkable.
“Can we say that we are as strong as we were before the coronavirus break? For sure that’s not the case as we were much better and you could say that we were the favorites. The situation today is totally different, but we are still Hapoel Jerusalem and we want to dream the dream.”
Hill can see that Jerusalem is a special club and that the players are the ones who make the environment surrounding the team unique giving them a chance to go all the way.
“One thing that stands out about this club is that there are great guys off the court. It makes things that much easier on the court as they are very competitive and it gets physical in practice. It shows the character of the guys and that’s one thing that I love about the club.
“We’re undefeated up until now, but coach feels that we can be a lot better which is encouraging because it shows the potential that we have on this team. We’ll see what happens. We’re taking it one day at a time to make that goal happen.”