ULEB Cup: Hap J'lem saves its European season

Hapoel Jerusalem may want to send a gift basket of some Tu Bishvat fruit to Polish club PGE Turow Zgorzelec.

sasson 224  (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
sasson 224
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Jerusalem may want to send a gift basket of some Tu Bishvat fruit to Polish club PGE Turow Zgorzelec after the Poles graciously allowed coach Dan Shamir's club to save its European season with an 89-74 victory at Malha Arena Tuesday night. Led by captain Erez Markovic's 25 points and Sharon Sasson's 23, Hapoel used a determined team effort to blow Turow off the court in the first half, then survived a late scare to advance to the next round of ULEB Cup play, based on results of games played elsewhere in the competition last night. As Hapoel's game ended, those results indicated they would advance as one of the five best fourth place clubs, a tribute to Shamir's team's resilience in the face of injuries that almost ruined their European season. But from the onset, it was clear Hapoel's players weren't ready to give up their regular visits to the continent's duty-free shops so easily. Markovic, the much-maligned center who has had to play big minutes in Jamie Arnold's absence, planted himself squarely under the basket and showed he was up to the big game, scoring six early points for Hapoel to get them on their way. It seemed like only one man, David Logan, who'd scored 34 against Hapoel in Poland, stood between them and the next round of play. Logan was simply unconscious in the first quarter, hitting his first five straight three-pointers to keep his club ahead, 19-16. But with Guy Pniny substituted in for added defense on the incredible shooter, Logan cooled off, and Hapoel used a Shason three-pointer and a Markovic three-point play to take a 26-20 lead after the first quarter. Then Shamir's club pulled out all the stops. Point guard Dror Hajaj ran the offense with precision, handing out seven assists on the night. Ramel Curry not only was an integral part of a 16-4 run to open the second quarter, but added a huge presence under the boards (five of his 10 rebounds on the night were on the offensive end) as Turow's players looked apathetic at best, allowing Hapoel to race to a comfortable 49-32 halftime lead. All ears and eyes were glued to radios and laptops as scores from other games trickled in. With Joventut Badalona racing ahead of Siauliai and eventually beating them 89-51, the picture looked rosier and rosier for Hapoel, who appeared to have their own game locked up. However, some early offensive jitters in the third quarter (six turnovers early) let the Polish squad creep back into the game. Logan found his range again, and was joined in a bombardment from beyond the arc that resulted in 13 Turow threes. But a key offensive rebound by Sasson, who calmly took the ball to the corner and hit a three, boosted the lead back to 69-51 and the European season's continuation appeared assured. Almost. Harding Nana, who had not hit a single three-pointer in ULEB Cup play so far this season, suddenly hit two, and when teammate Marko Skecic did the same, Jerusalem's lead was down to nine, 78-69, midway through the final quarter. Suddenly it looked like Jerusalem's magnificent efforts weren't going to bear fruit after all. That's when Skecic said one too many words to the refs, who hit him with a T. Curry calmly sank both foul shots to make it 80-69. Markovic rolled inside again to make it 82-71 and Timmy Bowers added some late offense, including a buzzer-beating basket, to give Jerusalem a well-deserved win and a ticket to the next round of ULEB Cup play. While Jerusalem deserves full points for its intensity in a crucial game, they had some help. The Poles not only left two key players home, after already clinching first place in Group I, but also bore little resemblance in the amount of effort they made, particularly in the first half, to the team that thrashed Hapoel earlier in the season. But that's ULEB Cup biz. In addition to his 23 points, Sasson had eight rebounds and three steals. With Jamie Arnold due back soon and the possibility of a new signing in the works, Jerusalem's European season is happily far from over.