Local Hoops: Ashkelon drops Mac TA to open playoffs

Other three series get under way on Sunday with Hap Jerusalem hosting Ironi Nahariya.

ashkelon maccabi 248 88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
ashkelon maccabi 248 88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Ironi Ashkelon claimed a remarkable 96-95 overtime victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv at the Nokia Arena on Saturday night thanks to Tre Kelley's buzzer-beating three-pointer. Maccabi was widely expected to easily sweep Ashkelon in the best-of-five quarterfinal playoff series, and led throughout most of Saturday's game. However, Ashkelon always remained within touching distance and despite trailing 67-54 with 10 minutes to play closed the margin in the fourth quarter to send the encounter into overtime. A Carlos Arroyo basket in the closing stages of OT opened a 95-92 gap and Maccabi seemed to be heading to the victory after all. But Kelley came out with an amazing clutch shot over Derrick Sharp at the buzzer to give Ashkelon a stunning win. "I told my teammates that I'm feeling it and just asked them to get me the ball," Kelley said. "We just wanted to keep it close in the fourth quarter and that's what we did We are very confident. We know they are a great basketball team, but there's no pressure on us. No one expects us to win." Rashon Turner was a monster under the baskets for Ashkelon once more, scoring 27 points and grabbing 19 rebounds. C.J. Bruton scored 23 points, with Kelley contributing nine points. Omri Casspi had 24 points for Maccabi, with Carlos Arroyo adding 22 points,. "I didn't believe we would lose," Maccabi coach Pini Gershon said. "I knew it would be difficult as they have nothing to lose. Ashkelon did its job and took advantage of our weaknesses." Ashkelon knew it had to keep pace with Maccabi at the start of the game to have any chance of winning and only trailed by three points (19-16) after 10 minutes. Tel Aviv continued to lead by a slender margin throughout most of the second quarter and was ahead 41-36 at the break thanks to a Raviv Limonad basket. A 6-0 start to the second half, capped by a Sharp three-pointer opened a double-digit margin (47-36) and the hosts seemed to be in complete control after taking a 67-54 lead into the final quarter. Ashkelon, however, never lost hope, and a Bruton three brought the visitors within five points (69-64). Maccabi just couldn't shake Ashkelon and Ironi trailed by a mere three points (77-74) with 90 seconds to play after Turner's three point play. The score was tied at 77-77 with 47 seconds to play following Bruton's excellent turnaround jumper and after Arroyo missed a shot at the buzzer the game went into overtime. A Turner triple at the start of the overtime gave Ashkelon its first lead since the first half (82-81), but Maccabi soon went back in front and an Arroyo basket with just under two minutes to advantage. A Bruton three a minute later brought the visitors back within a single point, and Kelley stole the show at the end, giving Ashkelon a memorable victory with his buzzer-beating three. The three other quarterfinal series' will get underway on Sunday. Hapoel Jerusalem will be favored to take a 1-0 lead when it hosts Ironi Nahariya at the Malha Arena. Jerusalem finished the regular season with a perfect 11-0 record at Malha, but did lose to Nahariya at Ein Sara just three weeks ago. "Nahariya is a team which likes to run and is built around its guards," Hapoel coach Guy Goodes said. "They pressure the ball well and steal more than any other team in the league. Nahariya never gives up and we will have to be ready for a battle." Hapoel Holon hosts Hapoel Galil/Gilboa, hoping its two losses to end the regular season will have no lasting effect. Holon had won six straight games before falling at Ironi Ashkelon and Maccabi Tel Aviv, but coach Danny Franco is confident the recent defeats will have no bearing on the playoffs. "We don't feel the recent losses are of any real importance," Franco said. "We're entering the playoffs in an excellent state of mind. The players enjoy playing with each other and no one wants the season to end." In the regular season Holon and Galil split their two meetings, with each team winning at home. Maccabi Haifa will be looking for its first victory of the season over Bnei Hasharon on Sunday. Haifa lost to Bnei Hasharon both home and away in the regular season, crashing to a 19-point defeat in Ra'anana last week. "This will be a very tough series," Haifa coach Avi Ashkenazi said. "Bnei Hasharon is an excellent team and they beat us twice this season. However, our home-court advantage should be significant." Also Sunday, the relegation playoffs get started, with Ironi Ramat Gan hosting Ironi Kiryat Ata and Maccabi Rishon Lezion visiting Maccabi Givat Shmuel.