Maccabi Tel Aviv used a dominating first half to upend Hapoel Jerusalem 89-78 in the Israeli Classico at the Pais Arena in the capital city. Scottie Wilbekin was the star of the show with 18 points going 5/7 from beyond the arc, Johnny O’Bryant added 13 points, Tarik Black chipped in with 12 points while Jeremy Pargo and captain John Dibartolomeo scored 10 points in the win. J’Covan Brown and Josh Owens each dropped 15 points and James Feldeine scored 13 points in the loss.
Ioannis Sfairopoulis’s side couldn’t have gotten off to a better start as O’Bryant knocked down 9 early points to give Maccabi a 17-7 lead after five minutes of action. The yellow-and-blue continued to attack Jerusalem as Wilbekin poured on the offense to give Maccabi a 29-14 advantage after ten minutes.
Black began heating up in the second quarter for Maccabi while Brown valiantly tried to keep the Reds in the game but were nonetheless down 38-21 midway through the second quarter. DiBartolomeo and Pargo put Maccabi up by 28 points soon thereafter and increased the lead to 49-21 forcing Oded Katash to call a time-out with 3:34 left in the half. Jerusalem went on a 7-0 run to cut the Maccabi advantage to 49-28 but a Wilbekin triple at the buzzer sent the yellow-and-blue into halftime ahead 54-32.
Yogev Ohayon, Josh Owens and Brown gave Jerusalem a lifeline as they started to chip away at the Maccabi lead to start off the second half pulling to within 11 points, 62-51 midway through the third quarter. The Reds continued their fine play and ended the third quarter down by just 8 points, 65-57 setting up for an exciting final frame.
However, Jake Cohen, Yovel Zoosman and Wilbekin controlled the tempo throughout the 4th quarter and made sure that Jerusalem wouldn’t get any closer as Maccabi wrapped up the win to remain in first place with just one more game left in the second round.
1) There’s no question that Maccabi Tel Aviv is the best team in the Israel Basketball Winner League. The Yellow & Blue absolutely came out flying in the first half and dismantled Jerusalem by hitting them hard and hitting them often. Over the opening twenty minutes it’s as if Sfairopoulos’s squad just couldn’t miss. Whether it was O’Bryant, Wilbekin, Black, Kane or Roll it seemed that the basket was triple the size of a normal hoop. O’Bryant who was on fire in the first quarter talked about the win, “It was one of those days where we couldn’t miss at least in the first half and it was a fun game. We were sharing the ball and everyone was playing defense. We know we are a top team but we had some bad games early on. We come out and let our game speak for itself.” I asked Coach Sfairopoulos if this victory was a statement win that showed the rest of the league who is number 1, “All the teams have ups and downs. It’s hard to stay at the same level for ten months, it’s impossible. It’s important to stay healthy, humble and play our basketball. But I believe we are the best team and not just now, from the moment I came to Maccabi. I believe that Maccabi is a very big club not just in Israel but Europe.”
2) Speaking of Europe, has Jerusalem’s season been one of just smoke and mirrors? I’ve said it many times that the Reds are playing in the 3rd best European competition and that may hurt them as they aren’t playing top level teams as Maccabi does week in and week out in the Euroleague. Jerusalem had played many years in the Eurocup which is a very strong competition but opted to move to the Champions League to be a big fish in a small pond. While they have been dominant, that just may hurt them in the long run because they aren’t playing against the nest teams that they could be. Sure, it’s nice to be one of the best teams in the league and there’s a chance to potentially host the Final Four, but is it a problem for the Reds to not be playing similar opponents that Maccabi does? This led me to my question to Oded Katash the Jerusalem coach asking if he sees any possibility of the Reds beating Maccabi this season, “There was a gap between the two teams in the first half but I believe that we have played better since the loss to Maccabi at Yad Eliyahu. They are a high level European team but I certainly believe that we can beat them. In order to do that we have to play at the highest level of intensity for the full 40 minutes.”
3) Scottie Wilbekin was tremendous for Maccabi and was just killing it throughout the matchup drilling home 5 triples. The guard has played excellent basketball of late and the win over Jerusalem was no exception leaving the fans in shock as well as the opposing players; they couldn’t believe what they were witnessing. “It was a big game and it’s fun to play in big games,” began Wilbekin. “The fans are yelling and everybody’s ready to play. It’s easier to be focused in these types of games.” Jake Cohen credited the fine team play due to the team being just that, a team. “It’s a credit to our professionalism and the great guys we have in the lockerroom. Everyone stays ready whatever the given role is on any night, whether it’s a Thursday or a Sunday. From 1-12 everyone there is no problem guy where we have to worry about. We have a lot of great guys that play hard and when you have that you become a really tough team to beat.”
Jerusalem didn’t show up in the first half and the players all knew it following the game. Was it the focus on Wednesday’s 2nd game against Neptunas for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals? Was it the quality of the opponent? Was it just plain old complacency? Veteran guard Yogev Ohayon summed up the loss, “It’s clear we didn’t come into the game ready to match Maccabi’s intensity off the tip and we can’t begin games like that. There are many things that we can learn from the game with the start the main point of focus. I’m happy we showed character in the second half and we will take the good things on from the game.” Josh Owens also spoke about the contest that was, “We didn’t start the way we wanted to and they were more aggressive. We were kind of reactionary and they came out hitting a lot of big shots. We need to start better.”