Basketball: US grabs hoops gold over Israel in OT thriller

Pearl rallies his troops back from late eight-point deficit in front of packed house in Ra'anana.

US basketball maccabiah  248.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger )
US basketball maccabiah 248.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger )
It was a back-and-forth battle that made spectators queasier than a tilt-o-whirl at the local fair. And just like that dizzying circus ride, it was difficult to gauge who was going to be left standing in Wednesday's Maccabiah men's basketball final at the Metrowest Sports Hall in Ra'anana. In the end, it was Bruce Pearl's US team holding strong on its collective 24 feet for a 95-86 overtime victory over an Israeli squad left wondering just how it got away. "This is the highlight of my career," said coach Pearl, who also is the head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. "It's my first visit and I promise you it won't be my last." US forward Seth Hauben, who scored 22 points, hit a crucial overtime jumper with one second left on the shot clock, which was immediately followed by Israel's Nitzan Hanochi missing two free throws to give the US the advantage it needed for the win. "I saw the shot clock and I called bank," Hauben said referring to the shot that hit the backboard before falling through the hoop. "I just threw it up two-handed, there was no other way I could do it. Sometimes luck is on your side." The US was down by eight points with less than three minutes left of regulation but fought to bring its deficit to 77-76 with 48.8 seconds remaining. In the timeout that ensued, the sold-out crowd began chanting the names of their nations' players. Israel's Avi Ben-Shimol - who brought Israel back in the fourth quarter and had 22 points for the night - hit a shot to extend the lead to three. But the dramatics were meant to last a bit longer, as Ben-Shimol was countered by US forward Dan Grunfeld's bucket and free throw to tie the game at 79 with just 20.7 seconds left. Ben-Shimol had two attempts to win the game in the final seconds of regulation but missed on one and air-balled the next as time expired. "It was up and down, the lead changed a lot in the end," said Grunfeld, who took home the tournament's most valuable player award and led all scorers with 25 points Wednesday. "I think you just have to keep your poise and keep plugging away like we did, and it paid off." Avi Fogel, who had 19 points for the US, said he told his team to expect battles like Wednesday. A member of the 2005 bronze medal team, Fogel said he was hungry for the gold this year after enduring disappointment in the last Maccabiah Games. "It's a dream come true," he said. "I told them it wasn't going to be easy and that we're going to have to come out there and work our butts off, and we knew we had some talent so if we did that we knew we were going to be OK." Hauben, who was Fogel's teammate in 2005, said the tournament schedule started to wear on the US team toward the end. And with a close loss to Russia and a narrow victory against Argentina to close out the preliminary draw, the US dragged its feet into the playoffs. "Argentina played us pretty tough, we had a tough bracket," Hauben said. "It's just a shout out to kind of the depth. Everyone has 12 guys, everyone can play." But not everyone can win the gold medal, and the US did that Wednesday. "Being in Israel has been very special for me," Grunfeld said. "As a Jewish American I had never been here before and it's really meant a lot. And winning the gold medal, that's been really special as well. All in all, it was a great trip."