ULEB Cup: Are nine points enough for Hapoel?

Jerusalem holds lead over FMP Zeleznik going into return leg.

Hapoel Jerusalem 298.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Jerusalem 298.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Jerusalem will try to reach its third ULEB Cup semifinal in four years Tuesday night when it faces FMP Zeleznik in the second leg of the quarterfinals in Belgrade. The Israeli club takes a nine-point lead into the game in Serbia after winning the first leg in Jerusalem 88-79. Hapoel will be going for its 12th consecutive win in all competitions. Hapoel was in complete disarray when it last lost almost two months ago to Belgian club Oostende, but has gone through a remarkable transformation over the last eight weeks. The 2006/07 season is already guaranteed of being a memorable one for Hapoel after the team lifted the State Cup for the third time in its history last month. The club can take a big step toward making this season an even more historic one by booking a semifinal berth on Tuesday. Hapoel, which was knocked out of the competition in the semis last year, is coming into the game with a level of confidence not seen in the capital in years. No one at the club is shying away from the fact that anything besides a repeat of the 2004 ULEB Cup championship campaign will be regarded as a disappointment. "Our nine-point advantage is meaningless at the moment," Jerusalem coach Dan Shamir said. "It's a fragile lead which won't affect the way we play. I believe we are the better club, but the better team is the one who will win when all is said and done." The Serbian club was led in the first leg by Branko Cvetkovic, who scored 22 points, hitting five three-pointers. Despite the guard's superb shooting capabilities (15 points per game in 24 minutes on court), the outcome of the game will not be determined by Cvetkovic's play. The key for Zeleznik will be how well its defense performs, as the team could not stop Hapoel at any stage of the first leg. The Serbian club conceded 77.1 ppg prior to the game in Malha and FMP will have little chance of closing the nine-point deficit if Jerusalem can put up the same kind of offensive numbers it did last week. Zoran Erceg (12.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg), who scored 17 points and grabbed five rebounds in the first leg, will be extremely happy with a similar contribution on Tuesday, with Milos Teodosic (7.8 ppg, 2.8 apg) and Dragan Labovic (10.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg) also hoping to repeat their combined 24-point, 11-rebound performance from Jerusalem in Serbia. Zeleznik shot 28 times from beyond the arc in the first leg, scoring on 12 of those attempts. The club hit only 11-of-26 from two-point range, and will need to improve on its 42.6% shooting from the field to give Hapoel a run for its money. "The first game in Jerusalem was decided by Hapoel's great defensive work," said Zeleznik coach Vlada Vukoicic. "We were trying to break their zone defense, but there were no easy shooting positions for us. I believe we are able to play much better in the second leg. "Now the chances of reaching the semis are split 50-50. Hapoel is satisfied with a nine-point margin after the first game, but we are also satisfied. I am sure we could play better at our home court. I believe our young players will be highly motivated to play their best on Tuesday." Jerusalem center Mario Austin (18.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg) earned weekly MVP honors with his 26 points and six rebounds in the first leg, while Meir Tapiro (12.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.2 assists per game) recorded a rare triple-double (16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). A similar effort by the two, complemented by the club's nine-point first-leg lead, will virtually guarantee the team's place in the last four. Tapiro was keen to steer away from complacency. "We won the first half of the tie by nine points, but it's far from over," said the Hapoel captain. "There is one more half to play and I'm sure we will know how to get the win. A nine-point lead is very fragile, but we are planning to return with a win and not thinking of losing."