Hapoel Jerusalem dropped Antwerp Giants 94-72 to get back onto the winning track in Champions League action at the PAIS Arena in Israel’s capital. The visitor’s took the lead early on but a late second quarter 12-0 run gave the Reds the lead for good as they took the victory. James Feldeine scored 17 points, while Suleiman Braimoh, Tashawn Thomas and Mindaugas Kupsas added 12 points a piece in the win. Luka Rupnik led Antwerp with 15 points and Hans Vanwijn chipped in with 12 points in the defeat.
Antwerp got off to a good start against Jerusalem and took an early 12-10 lead midway through the first quarter. Luka Rupnik sliced his way to the basket for an uncontested layup and hit a 3-pointer while Nimrod Levi scored four points to keep the hosts close. Victor Sanders scored from beyond the arc and then fed Ibrahima Faye for a monster alley-oop to extend the lead but J’Covan Brown, Tamir Blatt and Suleiman Briamoh kept the deficit to 2-points, 22-20 after ten minutes.
Vrenz Bleijenbergh came in for Christophe Beghin‘s squad and his insertion immediately paid dividends as he picked up assists on a pair of Vincent Kesteloot layups and also scored a triple of his own as Antwerp stayed in front 34-30 with 4:18 left in the half. But Mindaugas Kupsas worked the inside while Brown and Levi hit their shots from the outside for Oded Katash’s crew to help Jerusalem go on a 12-0 run to take a 48-37 lead at halftime.
Braimoh continued the Jerusalem attack to start the third quarter with a triple and a layup while Hans Vanwijn and Owen Klassen countered for Antwerp but the Reds stayed ahead 59-44 midway through the frame. James Feldeine hit a layup, added a long distance special and scored from inside the paint to put Jerusalem up 69-50 after thirty minutes.
Tashawn Thomas and Trent Lockett each found nothing but net from deep to open the final frame while Vanwijn and scored for Antwerp but Jerusalem stayed in front 78-62 with 4:48 left in regulation time. Faye put points in for the visitors but Lockett and Kupsas scored as well to hand the Reds a 94-72 victory.
1) After a slow start to the game, Jerusalem turned on their instant offense at the end of the second quarter to pull away from Antwerp. However, the key to that run was what happened a few minutes prior when Mindaugas Kupsas was substituted into the game in order to counter the Belgium big men. Kupsas was not only able to neutralize the visitors in the paint but he was also able to hit his free throws and help the Reds go on their way. “He helped us a lot especially with his size,” explained coach Oded Katash. “It’s easier for him to play at these levels whether it’s the Champions League or against Maccabi when he played in the Winner Cup Final. It’s size that he can take advantage of during a good amount of minutes. When I made defensive substitutions we were really able to use his size. He was definitely one of the reasons why we won today.” Nimod Levi also spoke about what Kupsas brings to the team, “He played really well and he is always positive whether it’s in practice or a game.”
2) But it wasn’t only Kupsas’s insertion that helped Jerusalem make their move, it was also their defensive play and turning up their aggressiveness that helped turn the tide of the game. The two go hand in hand, especially if you want to win. The Reds didn’t match Antwerp’s physical play early on and it was evident, but once they got rolling they were no match for the squad from Belgium. “We did a good job defensively for 25 minutes once we increased our aggressiveness, were more focussed and controlled the rebounds that helped us to run and score some easy points,” said Katash. “But I didn’t like how we started the game and this has happened a few times. We have to be smarter.”
The coach continued his thoughts on his side’s aggressiveness, “We weren’t aggressive enough at the start of the game and not so passively. The way to play is aggressively and not be scared to be called for fouls. We are working on this and the players did make an effort in their area. We did an excellent job on the offensive rebound and for the majority of the game we battled and played well offensively.” Tashawn Thomas who finished the game with 12 points and 8 rebounds also chimed in, “I loved our defensive play and we were connected on the court. I feel like if we can continue to stay on the same page defensively we will be a tough team to beat.” Finally Lockett most likely said it best, “We have to work on starting the game with the right physicality and hitting teams first. As the game went on we found our rhythm and we found out what worked on offense and defense.”
3) Antwerp knew that they had kept the game close for almost the entire first half but it got away from them just before the break. “We lost the game in the last two minutes in the first half,” explained Hans Vanwign. “We turned over the ball and we went down quickly by 11 points. Hapoel is a strong team and we could have done better.” Coach Beghin concurred with his player, “We played a really solid 18 minutes and we’re in the game but the last few minutes of the half we lost focus and took quick shots. Jerusalem likes to run and they were able to do that.”
Jerusalem got back onto the winning track in European play and that was crucial for their chances at going all the way in the competition. There’s no question that the squad has the talent to do so, but they will now have to wait and see as they hold their breath waiting to hear about J’Covan Brown’s injury which seems to be with his achilles. It would certainly be a big blow if Katash loses his all star guard and would really put a huge dent into Jerusalem’s chances. “J’Covan is a fighter and regardless I’m sure he will be ok,” said Lockett. “Obviously we need him on the court.” The team reported that he had an ultrasound immediately after the game and it showed that there was nothing that came up that was too concerning with the hope is that the injury isn’t serious. He will undergo more tests on Thursday that will determine the treatment and what the nest steps will be.
Lockett was very content and relieved that the team was able to pick up the win after a pair of losses in the Champions League as the team knows exactly how important it is to win and get into the right position in order to win the competition after coming up short last season, “Those two losses hurt us and we feel that we can compete with anybody. That’s not how we want to go out and represent ourselves, so it was good to get back onto the right track as there are a lot of good teams in our group. It’s super important for us to finish with the best record as possible so we can be in the best position moving forward.” Levi also spoke about the fact that not only is every win critical but every single point, “It was very important to win as every victory in this competition is crucial. Not only is every win important, but every single point is critical as well.
Antwerp was the Champions League Final Four host last year and drew over 18,000 fans to the semifinals and final in Belgium. The fact that the team made it into the final stages was extremely impressive with a quality roster of players. However, most of the players who had starred with the team are now gone as well as the head coach Roel Moors who went to Bamberg. Remaining was assistant coach Christophe Beghin who took over on the sidelines as well as team captain Dave Dudzinski. The balance of the roster was filled out by many younger players who have done admirably well this far in the domestic league and cup, but have struggled in Europe. Can Antwerp repeat their Final Four feat? Coach Beghin was not optimistic, “It will be really tough as our group is difficult and we are younger. Our challenge was to grow as a team and now we have been together for three months and we have to improve. All in all we have to stay realistic.”
They Said It…
Tashawn Thomas on his free throws and hitting his first triple of the season – “I worked on my free throws this sumner and I was getting worried about missing the 3-pointers I had been taking so it was good to finally score one.”
Trent Lockett about his big 4th quarter – “It’s always good to see the ball go into the hoop and as a team and we got into a rhythm as did I.”
Nimrod Levi – “It was great to be in the starting five but we really wanted to play more aggressively at the beginning of the game.”