Coach Shamir's squad triumphs, but lets a 16-point lead slip away making next week's game in Belgrade more of a challenge.
By ARYEH DEAN COHEN
There was good news and bad news for Hapoel Jerusalem fans at Malha Arena last night. First the good news: Jerusalem beat FMP Zeleznik, 88-79, the team they beat en route to their first ULEB Cup title two years ago. The bad news: coach Dan Shamir's squad let what would have likely been an insurmountable 16-point lead they had built in the third quarter slip away, making next week's game in Belgrade more of a challenge.
Still, Hapoel fans should look at their club's glass as half-full. The nine-point lead certainly gives them a good start going into next week's game, which will determine who will play in the semifinals, and they survived a very shaky start.
In fact, early on it was Hapoel that was seeing red, as the scarlet-clad, young Zeleznik club raced to an early 19-11 lead. Working the ball around the perimeter nicely and combining outside shooting with some alley-oop passes inside, Zeleznik seemed unimpressed by the screaming Hapoel fans. The more experienced Jerusalem squad looked shaky, turning the ball over four times.
But as usual, the insertion of Dror Hajaj into the Hapoel line-up paid immediate dividends, with his steal and basket propelling Jerusalem back to within 19-18. But led by Branko Cvetkovic and Zoran Erceg, the Serbian club refused to fold and came away ahead 26-21 at the end of the quarter.
Zeleznik held on and was up 31-25 before Meir Tapiro and Meir Austin turned the game around.
With Jerusalem playing tighter defense, Tapiro picked up the offense, hitting a three-pointer, then finding Austin for one of his 10 assists.
Terrence Morris joined the scoring parade before Timmy Bowers got the crowd on its feet with a steal and a huge dunk to put Hapoel up 42-39. Tapiro pulled another rabbit out of his hat moments later, grabbing a rebound and hitting a tough shot as the half ended, Hapoel ahead 44-41.
Then came the real on slaught. Playing about as perfect a quarter as it has all season, Hapoel used a 6-0 spurt at the opening of the third quarter to deliver what appeared to be the death blow to Zeleznik.
Everyone had a hand in the onslaught, with Tapiro dishing out assists all over the court, including a floor-length pass to Jurica Golemac for a hoop that made it 55-46 Hapoel.
The Hapoel captain, who also had 11 rebounds and 16 points for a triple double, was giving out so much love to his teammates he even found time to give one of the referees a kiss after he was whistled for a foul.
Meanwhile, Austin was dominating the Zeleznik big men underneath, scoring 8 of his game high 26 points. When Tapiro bombed in a three as the quarter ended, it looked like the final nail in Zeleznik's chances of advancing to the semifinal, with Hapoel ahead 70-54.
But the scrappy Serbs refused to be blown out. Led by Dragan Labovic and a resilient Cvetkovic, who had 22 points on the night, Zeleznik used three three-pointers (and was 12 of 28, or 43 percent from behind the ark on the night), the last by Milos Teodosic, to cut the lead to just 78-71 with 3:03 remaining.
Hapoel, meanwhile, suddenly found what earlier were easy passes hard to make, and shots that fell earlier failed to go in. A turnover by the previously magnificent Tapiro and then a misfired three-pointer let the Serbs move ever closer at 78-74, leaving the stunned fans wondering if Jerusalem would take any lead to Belgrade at all.
But just at the right moment, Shamir's club shook off the cold spell. A huge three-pointer by Morris, who was a tower of strength underneath on defense, and another clutch bomb from Hajaj boosted Hapoel's lead back to 84-75, the margin of victory Jerusalem will take on the road.
Overall, Jerusalem looked quicker and more talented than the Serbs, but Zeleznik's long bench and toughness means Hapoel can look forward to a real dogfight to determine if history repeats itself this season.
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