Hapoel Jerusalem advanced to the quarterfinals of the EuroCup after defeating Rytas Vilnius 84-77 in a closely contested battle. Tarence Kinsey starred for the Reds scoring 23 points, while Lior Eliyahu dropped 14 points and Curtis Jerrells scored 12 points and added 8 assists. Oh and by the way, how did the former NBA All-Star Amare Stoudemire do? He just picked up a double double with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Hapoel went on a 13-0 run midway through the first quarter thanks to fine shooting by Travis Peterson who drained three 3-pointers and finished the frame with 11 points. But a technical foul by Kinsey brought Vilnius back into the game as they went on a 8-0 run of their own to almost pull even after ten minutes. During a tight second quarter, Lior Eliyahu scored a number of crucial baskets to open up a 47-39 advantage for the hosts at halftime.
However, a rough third quarter for Jerusalem saw them fall behind by a point 62-61 as Vilnius outscored the Reds 23-14 thanks to solid team play by the visitors. With a trip to the quarterfinals hanging in the balance, Hapoel found the wherewithal to dig down deep and pull out the win thanks in part to five Jerrells assists, 7 Kinsey points and fine production by Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahu to finish off Vilnius and go through to the top 8 teams. All that’s left now is to defeat Novgorod next week and take first place in the group, gaining home court advantage for the best of three quarterfinal round.
1) Coach Simone Pianigiani spoke about positive energy during his post game press conference and it was clear that Hapoel Jerusalem has exactly that special ingredient both on and off of the court. The team plays well, as a team. Each player knows where the other one will be. Each player knows his role in a carefully built system. Each player knows his importance to the team as the word “team” has no letter I. Pianigiani said that perhaps three months ago the team would not have been the same as the team is now and wouldn’t be able to play as well as a team as they do now. He’s certainly correct when he makes that statement. He’s spoken all season long of seeing where the team is in February. Well it’s now February and they are in prime position in all three competitions that they are competing in. Quarterfinals of the EuroCup? Check. Semifinals of the Israel State Cup? Check. In the hunt for the Israeli league title? Check. Not bad.
2) The coach also discussed the vision and project that is being built by owner Ori Allon for Hapoel Jerusalem and putting the city’s name on the European basketball map. Again Pianigiani has certainly done that along with his coaching staff. He knows how to manage a game. He knows how to adjust to various defenses and offenses just as we saw tonight as Hapoel had to deal with zone defense throughout the contest. He knows how to put his players in the position to win and knows how to breakdown an opponent. Pianigiani is the complete coach and the complete package to lead this team.
3) I loved how Pianigiani and his players pulled out the last quarter, knowing that the EuroCup season could have been put into jeopardy with a loss. I really liked seeing Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahu on the court in money time leading the team, that was clutch. The two veterans along with a red hot Kinsey, Jerrells and Amare Stoudemire created the separation late in the game to lead the team to victory. Pianigiani is a brilliant, brilliant basketball person and Hapoel couldn’t have found anyone better for the job. They are so fortunate to have not only the positive vibe but also the Head Coach to mold and guide the team.
Are there still issues? Well certainly. Bar Timor is not playing at 100%. Malik Hairston is in the United States and Brian Randle just arrived. But that being said, Hapoel is still in good condition with depth. Depth that their opponent Sunday night doesn’t have. Their opponent also doesn’t have positive energy floating around the lockerroom and on the court as Maccabi Tel Aviv comes into the Arena in as bad a shape as any team could ever be in and are ripe for the taking. However, Hapoel has to be diligent not to take the Yellow & Blue for granted along with Novgorod next week when they look to close out atop of their group in first place. The Maccabi game is one of those classic “trap games” that the Reds can’t be complacent about, as a wounded animal is always most dangerous.
One last thing:
Speaking to Roie Cohen of Yisrael HaYom newspaper last night, he told me a great story about Pianigiani and when he interviewed for the Hapoel Jerusalem job. Ownership & management knew that from a European basketball perspective, Simone was second to none, but from an Israeli basketball point of view they were a bit concerned. When asked during the interview process about how much he knows about Holy Land Hoops, the former Italian National Team coach began discussing a player by the name of Yiftach Ziv. Ziv, a young quality guard for Ashdod is not exactly a household name, however one with potential, was enough to convince the powers that be that Pianigiani may be the man they were looking for. As it stands now they were certainly on the ball.