Latvian champ BK Ventspils' players probably saw Dror Hajaj in their dreams Tuesday night. The diminutive Hapoel Jerusalem point guard was all over the court.
By ARYEH DEAN COHEN
Latvian champ BK Ventspils' players probably saw Dror Hajaj in their dreams Tuesday night. The diminutive Hapoel Jerusalem point guard was all over the court, stealing the ball, scoring baskets and handing off for assists. He picked Hapoel off the floor just when they needed it, keying coach Dan Shamir club to a convincing 88-73 victory in the first of two games to determine who advances to the ULEB Cup quarterfinals.
The 15-point bulge wasn't Hapoel's biggest of the night, but considering they saw a 56-41 third-quarter lead evaporate under a 21-4 Ventspils run, they'll take it. Judging by the first game of the home-and-home series, the difference should hold up when the teams meet again in two weeks in Latvia.
Just how important was Hajaj - Hapoel's equivalent to a pit bull - who sank his teeth into Ventspils and just wouldn't let go? While he was on the court, Jerusalem outscored the Latvians 51-23; when he was on the bench, Hapoel was outscored 50-37.
But Hajaj didn't do it alone. Fellow reserve Guy Pniny also made a mighty contribution, as did back-up center Erez Markovic. Hapoel got 34 points from its bench and registered 17 assists in what was truly a team effort. The contribution from the bench proved mightily important when Timmy Bowers couldn't return after suffering a pulled muscle in his back during the first half, finishing with just two points.
Jerusalem looked smooth as silk early on, moving the ball well on offense and scoring at will under the basket, led by Mario Austin, who had nine quick points. But just as quickly, Austin was whistled for a silly second foul going for a rebound, and was relegated to the bench.
Both Terrence Morris and Markovic filled in ably for Austin and for Jurica Golemac (four assists in the first half) when necessary. But true to the scouting report, Ventspils recovered quickly using their trademark three-point shooting, led by Uvis Helmanis, and led at the quarter, 26-25.
The visitors still had the advantage at 32-30 when Shamir unleased Hajaj and Pniny. Whether it was the brawny forward hitting a three-pointer or him and Hajaj teaming up to strip Ventspils players of the ball, the two keyed Hapoel's great second quarter of solid defense and team offense to build what seemed like a comfortable 51-37 halftime lead. While Ventspils hit five out of seven threes early, Jerusalem held them to 0-5 in the second quarter, and it looked like Hapoel was on its way to taking a big bulge to Latvia.
Golemac gave the jubilant Jerusalem fans even more to smile about as the second half began, hitting five quick points to put Hapoel ahead 56-41 with just over seven minutes to play.
Then the roof caved in, or so it must have seemed, as the Latvians unleashed another fierce bombardment from beyond the arc that stunned the crowd. Eddie Shannon got things started with a long one, added another moments later and Helmanis hit his fourth of the night to cut the lead to 58-55. When Hapoel was whistled for a technical after arguing a basket Austin trapped on the glass, Shannon hit both foul shots and the cool, calm Latvians had crawled all the way back to take a 59-58 lead.
That rattled the pit bull's chain. Hajaj quickly hit a basket, fed Pniny for one, then stole the ball and drove the length of the floor for a score to send Hapoel back ahead, 67-62. Moments later Hajaj took another bite out of the Latvians, stealing another ball and scoring his seventh point within a minute to open up a 72-62 cushion at the end of the third quarter. Hapoel fans delighted with the turnaround.
Austin, who had 21 points to lead Jerusalem, returned to his earlier form with a three and Hapoel quickly reopened a 15-point lead, the Latvians' three-point touch having again eluded them. A three by Golemac, who had 16 on the night, gave Jerusalem its biggest lead at 17, 86-69, but the final 15-point differential - sealed, fittingly, with another Hajaj hoop - should be enough against what is clearly a weaker Latvian side, but which is known as a tough club to beat on its home court.
It was Hajaj's night to howl. His 16 points, four steals and two assists propelled Jerusalem to an impressive home victory, and Shamir's side continues to come together in its European season.
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