Maccabi's in Madrid and ready to go

Sherf's team faces Siena tonight, focused on making it to Sunday's Euroleague Final.

maccabi win 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
maccabi win 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Elitzur Ramle won its second straight league and cup double on Thursday night, defeating Bnot HashMADRID - The big time atmosphere, the hype and the hyperbole is perfect for Maccabi Tel Aviv, and it showed on Thursday as the team's preparations for the Euroleague Final Four tournament finally got into full swing at the Madrid Sports Palace. After falling to unexpected defeats in the tiny sports halls of Holon and Nahariya on the past two weekends, Tzvika Sherf's team looked much more at home training at the 15,000-seater arena in the Spanish capital where it will face Italian side Montepaschi Siena on Friday night at 7pm Israeli time. "I feel very good," Maccabi forward David Bluthenthal told The Jerusalem Post, as he stretched and warmed down after the training session. "Physically we are in good shape and we are in good mental shape as well. No one is ignoring the disappointments of recent games, but Maccabi knows it has the weight and expectations of the entire country on its shoulders as it prepares for Friday's encounter, and appears to be dealing with it well. The winner of Maccabi's semifinal will play either Russia's CSKA Moscow or Spain's Tau Vitoria in Sunday's final. Yotam Halperin is one player who has stepped up to the plate this season. Having failed to complete a move to the NBA two summers ago, Halperin had a weak season last year. However, since Sherf took over from Oded Katash in January, the 24-year-old has looked a different player, and sat next to Sherf at Thursday's Final Four opening press conference on the panel with the coach and a player from each of the other three teams. "Of course we are proud and happy to be here," a wide-eyed and smiling Halperin told the packed press room. "I grew up at Maccabi Tel Aviv since I was seven-years-old, so I know how important it is for Maccabi to be here. I hope we will see great basketball because there are great teams here." Looking at his own role in the team, Halperin added: "I think its a great opportunity for me. It is the first time I am playing in the Final Four. I know what everybody expects from Maccabi Tel Aviv, but it is a final four and everyone can win." Halperin is expected to be among the starting five on Friday, alongside Omri Casspi, Vonteego Cummings, Nikola Vujcic and Terence Morris. Considering the form of the two teams, the first semi of a double header will likely be a classic example of a strong offense (Maccabi) against a superb defense (Siena). Sherf admitted the significance of improving the defensive side of his team's game, which was shown up in the recent losses in the Israeli league. "Without good defense, it will be difficult and I believe that we show also good defense," he said. "Also offensively, it's not obvious that every game you can have great offense, so to win a game you need defense. I believe it will be a very close and tough game." Siena's Simone Pianigiani is in his second season as coach, but spent many years as an assistant coach at the club. He believes that the team from the small town in central Italy will overcome the underdog status some have stamped on it, despite its stunning form in the Italian league as well as the Euroleague this season. Piangiani told the Post he does not believe Maccabi's poor local form will translate to the European game. "I think that this isn't important," he said. "This season in the Euroleague Maccabi has shown all its potential. On offense it can destroy a team because they have so many players who can score. They can change the line up so easily that it's hard to counter them." Siena forward Shawn Stonerook took a breather from training to stress how prepared the team feels. Dismissing the significance of the crazy Maccabi crowd, he said: "We have played in front of big crowds this season and won. There were 15,000 in Belgrade [in the quarterfinal series] and we came out on top." Bluthenthal picked Stonebrook out as one of the key threats in the Siena team as well as guard Terrel Mcintyre. "I think they have a great team, but I have a calmness that comes from within and we will be ready tomorrow," he said.aron 77-69 to complete a 3-1 series win in the women's playoff final. Ramle, which defeated Electra Ramat Hasharon earlier this season in the cup final, won its third straight league title on Thursday and the seventh in club history. Jacky Johnson and Sherill Baker led Ramle, scoring 16 points each, with Shay Doron adding 15 points and Michelle Snow scoring 14 points. Abiola Wabara led the losers with 18 points. Bnot Hasharon opened an early advantage in Game 4, leading 22-18 after 10 minutes. The game remained tight in the second and third periods and Ramle were ahead at the break 39-38 and took a two point margin into the final 10 minutes of the encounter (56-54). A run at the start of the fourth period gave Ramle an unassailable lead and the hosts cruised to yet another league championship. In the BSL on Thursday, Maccabi Rishon Lezion defeated Ironi Ashkelon 88-84.