It has been over 2,000 years since the miracle of Channukah, but Hapoel Jerusalem channeled their inner Maccabean spirit to send the Greeks home once again without a victory on Israeli soil.
Hapoel’s Lior Eliyahu was the modern day Matityahu as the Israeli power forward rose up in the first quarter to grab 12 points and set the tone for his side’s incredibly important 82-78 win over AEK Athens.
With only one game left and AEK holding one more victory than Hapoel both sides knew this was a must win match if they wanted to secure the final qualification spot in the group. The Reds were led by Eliyahu’s 22 points and eight rebounds, along with big contributions from E.J Rowland – 17 points and seven assists – and Donta Smith – 14 points and nine rebounds.
The visitors put in a big performances with Loukas Mavrokefalidis taking 16 points and 9 rebounds while Dimitrios Mavroeidis and Giannis Kalampokis both dropped 15 points.
AEK started the first quarter strong as they put away four points without reply before Hapoel took the lead thanks to six points from Eliyahu. Things were still tight up until the halfway point in the first before the hosts raced away, finishing things at 31-20, thanks to 12 points from Eliyahu and nine from Yotam Halperin. Mavroeidis was the main scorer for the visitors with seven points.
AEK began to cut away at Hapoel’s lead in the second period and at five-minute mark the scores stood at 35-30. Hapoel managed to pull away again, and with two minutes left they had gone up to 43-34, but AEK netted three points in the last 10 seconds to end the first half only six points down. Malik Hairston was the man of the quarter bagging eight points for AEK, Rowland put up six points for the hosts while Matt Janning took the same amount with two three-pointers.
Fans were treated to a ceremonial Channukah lighting at half-time and shortly into the start of an uneventful third quarter Hapoel’s ultras section unveiled a banner accusing the Greeks of once again unfairly targeting Jews. Neither side was able to pull ahead in the penultimate ten minutes as both teams netted 18 points which left Hapoel’s lead at 61-55.
The fourth quarter continued to be a back-and-forward affair as Hapoel kept their narrow lead. Things started getting tense in the last two minutes as Kalampokis brought the score to 74-72 with a big three-pointer. With one minute left Loukas notched two big free throws to keep the deficit at two for AEK. With 30 seconds left Rowland tried to make a solo run up the pitch but lost the ball, it looked like AEK might be about to tie up the scores on the counter-attack but Halperin had an incredible steal and sent the ball forward before Smith smashed home a huge dunk to secure the victory for his team.
The other important game in the group saw Neptunas Klaipeda secure their place in the top four as they beat the already qualified Nizhny Novgorod 82-75. Hapoel now travel to the last place team Krasny Volgograd for their last game and a win should be enough for them to take fourth place in the group. However, AEK still have a chance as they host Klaipeda who now don’t have as much to play for in the final match.
Danny Franco said: “I’m happy we were able to deal with the pressure and get the win. Now we must concentrate on next week to do the best and win.”
AEK Athens coach Dragan Sakota said: “Congratulations on the win to Hapoel. They were almost the whole game in front. We were missing a big number of players and it was very difficult, that cost us. We believed we could turn the game, we had the destiny in our hands in the last few seconds but we lost it.
“Of course I am not confident about the last game. We have to win against Neptunas which is not easy. Half the job is in our hands and half is with Hapoel. I cannot say I am 100% optimistic that we will go through but I am optimistic.”