Hapoel's title hopes begin in Belgium

Jerusalem side to face Euphony Bree tonight in first game of two-leg tie.

tapiro hapoel 88 (photo credit: )
tapiro hapoel 88
(photo credit: )
The beginning of what Hapoel Jerusalem fans hope will be another magical run through the ULEB Cup playoffs begins Wednesday night when the team takes on the Belgian champs Euphony Bree. The two-leg tie starts at Bree's Expodroom with the return leg at Malha on February 8. The aggregate winner will advance to the quarterfinals against the winner of the Unics Kazan versus Lottomatica Roma tie. Jerusalem won the ULEB Cup in 2004, shocking opponents, fans and even itself as it defeated mighty Real Madrid in the final at the Spirodome in Charelroi, Belgium. Only power forward Ido Kozikaro and reserve guard Raviv Limonad remain from that team, which was led by Will Solomon, Doron Sheffer and Tunji Awojobi. Last season the team stumbled against weaker opponents and failed to advance into the competition's elimination rounds. This year the team was built for success, with president Arkadi Gaydamak sparing no expense to bring in some of the best players to ever grace the court in Jerusalem. Those moves have paid off as the reds raced through the regular season to take second place in Group D and trail only Euroleague champ Maccabi Tel Aviv in the local BSL. Big man Mario Austin was Hapoel's most effective player in the regular season, averaging 16.9 points and a competition best 9.4 rebounds as he was named MVP. Point guard Horace Jenkins's 21.1 points per game were the most in the competition, and Meir Tapiro was tied for third in the assist race with 4.5 a night. But the players' impressive statistical lines only tell part of the story about coach Erez Edelstein's side heading into Bree. Sharpshooter Roger Mason Jr. will try to play after twisting an ankle in practice on Friday. He skipped the BSL win over Ashkelon on Sunday and took part in some drills during Tuesday's final practice. But the more important issue is the relationship between Tapiro and Jenkins, who had an on-court altercation during a league game at Bnei Hasharon last week. The two did not speak much about the incident, other than to say that they've put it behind them. Against Bree we may learn if that is truly the case. ULEB Cup insiders say that Bree is among the weakest teams to reach this stage of the competition and that Jerusalem should not have a problem winning. The most recognizable name on the team is veteran forward Roger Huggins, who finished the 2001 season with Hapoel and played last year with Bnei Hasharon. However at age 38, the Englishman's best days are behind him. Nevertheless he averaged 10.7 points and 7.8 rebounds in 24 minutes of action during the regular season. Jenkins will be familiar with more than just the name of Bree scorer Julius Jenkins, a quick guard who led his team with 19.7 points per game this season. Other important players are forward Bryan Lynch, sharpshooter James Cantamessa and center Yves Dupont. Its strength is in its team play and, while Hapoel clearly has the more talented side, the capital city hoopsters will need to play well and use their heads to win big in the first leg. On TV: Hapoel Jerusalem at Euphony Bree (live at 9 p.m. on Channel 33)