The matchups are now set and the principles are already to battle it out for Israel basketball glory as the State Cup competition is ready to get under way.
Bnei Herzliya, last season’s most pleasant surprise and feel-good story, was the last team to punch its ticket into the quarterfinals and will take on Maccabi Tel Aviv as it will look to repeat as champion.
Herzliya was able to capture the cup last year when it defeated Hapoel Tel Aviv in a tight battle at Yad Eliyahu and then advanced all the way to the Israel league finals, where it succumbed to Hapoel Holon. With most of the roster back and intact – other than one very important piece in last season’s most valuable player Chinanu Onuaku – Herzliya got off to a brutal start to the new campaign with head coach Ofen Aharoni at the helm.
“It was a very big win for us."Andy Van Vilet
Losses came fast and furious and nothing seemed to work as the club was not only competing in the Israeli league but also the Basketball Champions League for the first time in franchise history. Pressure was no doubt building within the team, which included veteran Chris Babb, Andy Van Vliet, Maurice Kemp, Quinton Hooker, Sandy Cohen and Onuaku’s heir in big man Julian Gamble, and with that came plenty of frustration as well.
The sign of the times for Herzliya came immediately when it fell in the opener to newly promoted Ironi Kiryat Ata. However, things looked to be on the upside with two straight wins over perennial contender Hapoel Jerusalem and defending champion Hapoel Holon. But the good feelings would quickly wash away when Aharoni’s team lost point guard Hooker and dropped straight local games while also struggling in continental play.
Rumors began to swirl that Aharoni was going to step down as head coach as a revolving door of players came through the roster, but then Hooker returned to action and all of a sudden Herzliya stunned Maccabi Tel Aviv in overtime on the road and then rattled off another win against Hapoel Gilboa/Galil to move its record to 4-6.With one game remaining in the first round, Herzliya knew it needed to win to get into the State Cup club to have a chance to make magic once again.
While Aharoni seems to have steadied the ship, one player who had gotten off to a very tough start to the season, Van Vliet, also finally broke out of a huge slump. After not having dressed for the Maccabi Tel Aviv victory, Van Vliet returned to the lineup and first put up 12 points in the win over Gilboa, and then broke out against Hapoel Tel Aviv with 24 points while going 6-of-8 from downtown in a do-or-die game against arguably one of the best teams in the league.
Van Vliet hit season highs in multiple categories including minutes with 31, 10 rebounds, four assists and an efficiency rating of 31. Add to the fact that his outside shooting skills were finally on display as well, the hope is that Van Vliet, the 27-year-old Belgian, has reverted back to the dangerous player he was all of last campaign.Following the blowout win over Hapoel Tel Aviv, Van Vliet opened up about his season thus far, how he was able to break out and of the importance of being able to play once again in the State Cup.
“It was a very big win for us,” a relieved Van Vliet began. “Especially after a very slow start to the season, it looks like we are really picking up again. We got ourselves a ticket to the State Cup games, so that’s huge that we get to defend our cup and we’re going to give it our all.”
The game against Hapoel Tel Aviv marked the first time that Onuaku was playing against his former club and with the decision not to honor him before the game, it would have seemed that emotions would be running high. However, Herzliya came out like a blazing fire and set the tone very early with a huge first quarter that set the stage for the big victory.
“Everybody knows that this game was an important game to get into the cup and everybody knows that it was against Chinanu. But we didn’t really discuss it or talk about it and everybody knows what’s up as we’re all professionals. We came ready and we came with the energy which gave us an early lead,” Van Vliet explained.
Without Hooker for quite some time, Herzliya tried to find a suitable substitute, but the likes of Briante Weber did not work out as the team continued to stumble in league play. However, once the floor general returned to the fray things started straightening out.
“We got our point guard back, our leader in Quinton Hooker who has been huge for us,” said Van Vliet. “It felt like we really missed him not only as a basketball player but a leader too. He’s an amazing player and an amazing person too. For him to lift us up has been huge.”
A tough start to the season
Van Vliet himself did not have a great start to the season, which may have also been an effect of the lack of a point guard being able to get him the ball in his sweet spots. But regardless of having Hooker or not, the Belgian forward was well aware that his play had not been up to par.
“It’s been a tough start of the season for me. I haven’t been happy with it and the team hasn’t been happy with it. But the only thing I can keep doing is working through it and I just came in with the mindset of just go do it, and I’m going to go out there and play.
“We had a great season last year and I’m coming into this season and I expect more out of myself and I want to do more. I put more pressure on myself. Obviously we had Champions League as well which was a tough schedule. It’s been tough physically and tough mentally too, to stay ready but I think that I’ve been in worse situations where things like that happen just like anything in life. You just have to keep showing up and keep working.”
The big question now for Van Vliet is if he can keep up his fine play and become a key contributor on a regular basis just as he was doing last year.
“I hope so, if I keep making my shots like that. I am going to keep the mentality of playing with the ‘just go do it’ mentality and keep doing that and that’s what I’m going to do for myself and for the team.”
Van Vliet also thinks that there is no reason that Herzliya can’t compete for the State Cup title and there is reason to believe that despite the up-and-down season they can still hoist the trophy by the end of the tournament.
“For sure, why not? Last year nobody believed in us. We won it last year and we’re getting hot at the right time. We’ve got all of our players and everybody is healthy, so why not?”