Local Hoops: Maccabi loses again in the league, five days before the Final Four

Nahariya beats Tel Aviv 88-87 while Holon takes first place.

Maccabi TA 224.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger [file])
Maccabi TA 224.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger [file])
The Euroleague Final Four is just around the corner and Maccabi Tel Aviv can't stop losing. The Israeli champion, which faces Italy's Montepaschi Siena on Friday, lost 88-87 to Ironi Nahariya in the BSL on Sunday night for its third defeat in four league games. Sunday's loss, coupled with Hapoel Holon's 120-74 thrashing of Ironi Ramat Gan, sees Maccabi Tel Aviv drop to second place in the standings, behind the irrepressible Holon. Losing first position in the league is no more than a dent to the pride of Tel Aviv, as the league title will in any case be decided by a Final Four tournament. Maccabi coach Tzvika Sherf will, however, be far more worried by the fact that his team has played quite horribly ever since April 10 when the yellows beat Barcelona to book its place in the Final Four in Madrid. The perennial champion has struggled in every facet of the game in the last two-and-a-half weeks and will have to make a dramatic switch this coming weekend if its Final Four isn't to end in bitter disappointment. Ashante Johnson led Nahariya scoring 22 points, with Otis Hill adding 15. Yotam Halperin and David Bluthenthal each scored 20 points for the losers. Also Sunday, Ironi Ashkelon claimed its sixth straight victory, edging Hapoel Afula/Gilboa 83-82. Ashkelon trailed 51-38 at the break, but seized control of the encounter in the second half, with Steve Burtt scoring 25 points. Maccabi Rishon Lezion climbed off the bottom of the standings on Sunday, defeating Hapoel Galil Elyon 84-82 at Kfar Blum. Oded Sha'ashoa had one of the best games of his career, scoring 27 points and passing seven assists, giving Rishon its second straight win after last week's triumph at Malha Arena over Hapoel Jerusalem. Jerusalem hosts Bnei Hasharon on Monday in new coach Ziv Erez's first game in charge. In Nahariya, Hill's two points at the end of the first quarter gave the hosts a 24-18 lead, but Maccabi was never in any danger of losing touch with the northerners and Tal Burstein's jumper tied the score at 47-47 at the interval. A 12-0 Tel Aviv run at the start of the third quarter was capped by a Yotam Halperin basket and opened a seven point margin (59-52). Bluthenthal's three-pointer extended the gap to 11 points, Maccabi's biggest of the night, but Nahariya cut the deficit to just six points with 10 minutes to play (70-64). The visitors remained in front for the first eight minutes of the fourth period, but Johnson's basket with just under two minutes to play brought Nahariya within one point (85-84). Maccabi looked clueless in its subsequent possessions and Avi Suker easily laid the ball in the perennial champion's basket with 51 seconds to play to give the hosts the lead. Nikola Vujcic regained Tel Aviv's advantage nine seconds later, but Adrian Pledger scored in Ironi's next possession and the hosts failed to score again, falling to yet another league defeat.