Basketball: Hap J'lem ready for elimination rounds

Hosts Latvian champions BK Ventspils in the first leg of the first elimination round of the ULEB Cup at the Malha Arena.

hapoel jerusalem 298.88 (photo credit: EPA)
hapoel jerusalem 298.88
(photo credit: EPA)
Hapoel Jerusalem can take a significant step towards the quarterfinals of the ULEB Cup on Tuesday night when it hosts Latvian champions BK Ventspils in the first leg of the first elimination round at the Malha Arena. Jerusalem barely came through the group stage, finishing in third position in Group C after winning and losing five games, and displaying erratic basketball that drove its fans from cheers to boos at an unprecedented rate. Hapoel went from the sublime to the ridiculous within days, defeating such teams as Montepaschi Siena and Alba Berlin on the road, but losing to mediocre Belgian side Oostende home and away. However, Jerusalem, which has won its last four games in all competitions, has shown in the last couple of weeks that it may finally be closing in on the consistency that has eluded it so far this season and that ULEB Cup success is not as improbable as it may have seemed to be only a few weeks ago. "We were in a tough group and that continued with the draw against Ventspils," Hapoel coach Dan Shamir said ahead of the game. "The Latvians are a team with a lot of quality and speed. They are very experienced in the ULEB Cup and it will be hard for us to advance. "Everybody in the team understands that it will be difficult and we will have to try to get a good result in Jerusalem because of the fact that Ventspils hardly ever loses at home," he said. Ventspils progressed to the elimination rounds with ease, finishing in second place in Group B with seven wins and three losses. The seven-time and reigning Latvian champion has won its last five continental games and is hoping to repeat its quarterfinal appearance from 2005. Coach Karlis Muiznieks is familiar with Israeli basketball, having guided the Latvia national team against the blue-and-white and spent time at Maccabi Haifa during his playing career. Muiznieks is wary of Jerusalem, but nevertheless confident of his sides' chances over the two legged tie. "I think Jerusalem has a good team this season, with foreign and Israeli stars," Muiznieks said on Monday after arriving in Israel. "It's a very tough game for us but this is only the first 40 minutes of the 80 minute tie and I think the chances are even. I think it's better for us that the first game is in Jerusalem and the second at home." The Latvians' biggest star is American guard Eddie Shannon, who leads his team in minutes (31), points (15.2), assists (5.1) and steals (1.8). Shannon is complemented in the backcourt by Justin Love (10.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and swingman Aigars Vitols (10.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg), which makes the team extremely awkward to defend on the perimeter. Ventspils' frontcourt players are equally potent as their backcourt teammates, with Dusan Jelic (12.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Darlon Johnson (10.4 ppg) and Kaspars Cipruss (11 ppg) guaranteed to make the Jerusalem big men toil for every rebound and shot under the baskets. The Latvians also enjoy solid contributions from veteran Uvis Helmanis (8.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and rising star Akselis Vairgos (8.2 ppg), ensuring the team can still cope even if Shannon is having an off day. "Hapoel is a very good team that survived a very tough group. They have very experienced players, some big names in Europe, so it will be difficult for us," Shannon said. "If we continue to play well I think we will be fine. The key for us is to control the tempo." The hosts will attempt to slow down the Latvians' key guard with the combined defensive efforts of Timmy Bowers (15.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Meir Tapiro (12.2 ppg, 3.8 apg, 3.4 rpg) and especially Dror Hajaj (7.2 ppg, 2.1 spg) who will use his quick hands to pressure the opponents playmaker. Jerusalem should also hold its own in the paint, with Mario Austin (17.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg), Jurica Golemac (10.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.2 apg) and hardworking Terrence Morris the more talented of both sets of big men. In its two previous trips to the elimination rounds, Hapoel won the ULEB Cup in 2004 and reached the semifinals last year. If the side has any intention of repeating those feats it will need nothing less than a comfortable win on Tuesday. "This is our most important game of the season," Hapoel center Erez Markovitch said on Monday. "Our route to the elimination rounds wasn't so good and this is our chance to get back on course. "We need to take advantage of the home court and win the game." On TV: Hapoel Jerusalem vs BK Ventspils (live at 7 p.m. on Channel 1)