Maccabi Tel Aviv defeated Hapoel Jerusalem 82-68 to capture their 44th Israel State Cup thanks to fabulous play by MVP Gal Mekel with 15 points. Andrew Goudelock drained 15 points as well, while Devin Smith dropped 13 points and Colton Iverson had 12 in the win. Amare Stoudemire led the Reds with 15 points as Lior Eliyahu added 13 points in the defeat.
The first quarter was everything that everyone expected, a tight and physical contest between two teams that wanted to win the Cup. Jerusalem took the lead after ten minutes, 24-20 and sported even scoring all around as Amare Stoudemire, Curtis Jerrells, Bar Timor and Lior Eliyahu all contributed 5 points. Andrew Goudelock led the way for the Yellow & Blue with 5 points of his own. The second quarter was more of the same as Jerusalem took a 47-42 advantage into the half thanks to Stoudemire’s 7 points as both sides shot roughly 50% from the field from both 2 and 3-point land.
Maccabi came out of the break looking to cut into the lead with an offensive fast paced attack, but Itay Segev picked up 3 fouls in less than two minutes sending him to the bench and altering coach Ainars Bagatskis plans to come. However, the change was for the good as Maccabi dominated the third quarter, outscoring Jerusalem 20-11 with Devin Smith draining a last second 3-pointer as the Yellow & Blue bench broke out into pandemonium. The final frame was all Maccabi thanks to Colton Iverson, Victor Rudd and MVP Gal Mekel as they doubled Simone Pianigiani’s squad 20-10 to win their 44th Israel State Cup.
1) Maccabi Tel Aviv came into this game as, well, Maccabi Tel Aviv. They were not going to walk out of the Jerusalem Arena without the State Cup. They were not going to go down to Jerusalem. At the State Cup press conference on Sunday morning I asked coach Ainars Bagatskis about the fact that Maccabi had won 7 straight State Cups and how important it would be to him to win the 8th in a row. The answer was, simple and straight to the point, “I want to win the Cup.” Nothing more and nothing less. He wanted to win the Cup and so did his players more than Hapoel. That’s not to say that Jerusalem didn’t want to win it, of course they did. But the display on the court, the desire, passion, lockdown defense on every possession and their will and want was clearly all Maccabi in the second half. In fact, it was all Yellow & Blue on this night. Can they take this momentum to the next game? That still remains to be seen, but let them celebrate and enjoy the moment, let it sink in and let it guide them the rest of the way. Let’s see where it will take them because as they say, the sky’s the limit.
2) Gal Mekel was named the game’s MVP and he certainly deserved it scoring 15 points, pulling down 6 rebounds and dishing out 4 assists. But a case needs to be made for Devin Smith and Colton Iverson. The wily veteran Smith scored 3 points in the first half in 14 minutes but made a helluva difference in the second half scoring 10 points in 7 minutes punctuating a great third quarter with a massive 3-pointer. It looked like the Devin Smith of old, the Devin Smith that we all remember and hopefully this will just be the beginning of his revival to help lead Maccabi the rest of the season. Iverson was spectacular for the Yellow & Blue. He had a quiet night with 12 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocked shots and an efficiency rating of 24! Not bad Colton. The big man was an absolute rock for Maccabi in the win and his face said it all when I was interviewing him in the lockerroom, he was like a little kid in the candy store telling me that this was his first title as a professional. His smile was priceless.
3) Hapoel Jerusalem can only blame themselves for the loss. Scoring only 20 points in the second half sealed their fate, shooting an abysmal 5/28 and 1/11 from beyond the arc. Tarence Kinsey went 3/12, Curtis Jerrells 4/15 and Lior Eliyahu’s 5/12 along with going 16/25 from the free throw line just wasn’t going to cut it on this night. Amare only scoring 3 points in the final 29 minutes also didn’t help matters. Hapoel had chances and plenty of them to pull away on a number of occasions but just couldn’t do it. With a 24-13 foul difference in their favor, the Reds just couldn’t capitalize and find a way to take a big enough lead thereby allowing Maccabi to hang around midway into the third quarter when the Yellow & Blue took control of the game. Coach Pianigiani spoke after the game saying that it was good to make it to the final and that this was just the start of a long term plan. That certainly is true and Hapoel will be a force to be reckoned down the road should the Reds continue on this path. But I think that Amare may have summed up the evening best, “We beat ourselves tonight.”
I like what coach Bagatskis is doing with Maccabi. He’s made them into one team and as he said in the lockerroom, one that has no ego. Since the Latvian’s arrival he has been talking about the fact that the Yellow & Blue were three different teams, one in the Israeli league, one in Euroleague action and then another one at practice. But tonight I think we finally saw one team. Obviously this was a major goal of his and he has successfully maneuvered and managed his squad into his vision of what his team should look like. The fact that Israelis played a central role in the State Cup win is thanks to Bagatskis being able to help Gal Mekel, Guy Pnini, Yogev Ohayon and Sylven Landesberg along with a retuning Itay Segev regain their confidence. They now feel that they are part of the team and not just guys that have to play because of the Russian Rule that forces teams to play 2 Israelis on the court at all times. Being a coach is not just about X’s and O’s but also knowing how to get a team to play together as a team and being able to successfully manage players who are people too. People who have feelings, people who show up every day to do their job and want to be proud of the job that they do no matter what profession. In this case it’s being a professional basketball player. I hope that coach’s Bagatskis can take the positives out of this win and use them for the balance of the Israeli league season and of course the Euroleague campaign. There are still plenty of games to go and maybe, just maybe, Maccabi will be able to run the table and find their way into the quarterfinals.