State Cup Hoops: Holon, Haifa reach final after super semis

Hapoel Jerusalem stunned by Ashkenazi's greens after league champ ends Nahariya's run.

hapoel holon deron washington 248 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
hapoel holon deron washington 248
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Ironi Nahariya's magical State Cup run came to an abrupt end on Monday night when the team from the North was edged out 79-76 by Hapoel Holon in the first semifinal of a double-header at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv. Holon will face the Maccabi Haifa Heat in Thursday's final after Avi Ashkenazi's greens defeated Hapoel Jerusalem 67-66 in the second game of the night. It will be Haifa's first final since 1971, when it was routed by Maccabi Tel Aviv 70-51. Nahariya had come so close to reaching its first State Cup final, but poor execution in the last few minutes and the ice-cold veins of Hapoel Holon's Luis Flores left Yaacov Jino's side out of the final. Flores hit two free throws with 47 seconds left in the game to put his team ahead by three points (74-71). Then, after Philip Ricci scored a clutch three-pointer for Nahariya, Flores went back to the line to score two more points and win the game. The team in purple had put in a superb effort to reach the semis, knocking out former champion Maccabi Tel Aviv and Bnei Hasharon along the way. Nahariya forward Ricci, who scored 12 points on Monday, admitted the large number of turnovers had been his team's downfall. "We just needed to execute more in the offense and reduce the turnovers. We had 22 and you can't win with that," a downtrodden Ricci told The Jerusalem Post as he sat slumped in the locker room after the game. "We thought it was ours. We thought this tournament was for us. Hats off to them. They won it, you know." The result delighted the Holon squad, which erupted in a frenzied celebration not seen at Nokia since the club beat Maccabi Tel Aviv to clinch the league title last May. It was the first time Hapoel Holon reached the State Cup final since 1995 when it lost 88-77 to Bnei Herzliya. The Lions have never won the cup despite appearing in six finals. Holon veteran Chris Watson is the only player to have survived from last year's team after former owner Miki Dorsman sold the club in the summer and new coach Danny Franco was forced to rebuild from scratch. Watson said he has enjoyed having a point to prove this season when so many pundits wrote Holon off. "Last year we had a great team, there's no denying that but this year we've got a bunch of great guys and I'm actually having more fun this year earning all the wins we did," he told the Post. "We're a little bit less talented than we were last year but we stick together and come out and fight. We heard people saying we weren't so good. But we're professional athletes and we try and come out and prove them wrong." The game had been a tense affair with the lead changing hands on numerous occasions. Holon led 19-14 after the first quarter but Nahariya came back in the second period to move four points ahead at 45-41. The third quarter was similarly close but Nahariya stayed ahead by a single point heading into the final 10 minutes with the scores at 56-55. It was then that turnovers began to mount and Flores's baskets proved the difference between the sides. Although Jerusalem was a massive favorite in its semifinal, Haifa began the game on the front foot, leading 18-11 after the first quarter. The Hapoel fans filled more close to half of the seats, turning the arena red for the night. As the supporters got behind their team, Jerusalem got back into the game, closing to within three points (21-18) after three minutes of the second quarter and then taking the lead after a Haifa time out. While Jerusalem stayed in front, Haifa was not to be left behind and entered into half time with only a two-point deficit (35-33). The second half was equally close and the game went right down to the wire. Thirty seconds from the final buzzer, Devon Jefferson scored a basket to put Haifa one ahead (66-65), but Omar Sneed hit back with a three-pointer to push Jerusalem into a single point advantage with 10.6 seconds on the clock and it seemed all but over. And it would have been had Moshe Mizrahi not made a crucial lay up to win the game at the death.