1) With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Maccabi Tel Aviv and Chairman Shimon Mizrahi’s 80th Birthday celebrations, the Yellow & Blue needed to end the night off on a high note with a win. Not only only because of the presence of the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin or Euroleague CEO Jordi Bertomeu but because Ioannis Sfairpoulos’s team needed to get their first win of the continental season after falling in their first two games at Khimki and Real Madrid. Was this a must win? Yes, no question.
In front of over 11,000 rabid fans singing and dancing, Maccabi went out and dominated Red Star Belgrade and it looked like their were going to run away with a 30 point victory which would have been similar to their win ten years ago against Ljubljana at Mizrahi’s 70th Birthday celebrations. However, it wasn’t going to be that easy this time around as the hosts frittered away their lead, couldn’t finish the Serbian squad off and ended up needing overtime to take their first win of the campaign. “It wasn’t an easy win but the truth is we deserved the win,” Coach Sfairpoulos said after the contest. “We started the game with great enthusiasm and effort both offensively and defensively. We began the second half well but we struggled at points. We controlled the game until the 35th minute and then made some bad decisions. We gave up easy points and they came back into the game. What we didn’t do in the last five minutes we did in overtime where we had determination and clear ideas as to how to win.”
2) Omri Casspi made a triumphant return to Euroleague play at Yad Eliyahu after a ten year NBA career. The veteran forward looked cool, calm and collected in 24 minutes of action that saw him score 15 points, grab 8 rebounds and draw 8 fouls. He looked like a leader on the floor and has fit back into the team of his youth without missing a beat. Casspi was well aware of how important the first Euroleague win was for his side while also understanding that the team is still in building mode and needs to find a way to finish off a game and not let a team hang around, “The win took a lot of pressure off of our backs. We have so many situations we need to learn from. Coach is learning our schemes and we’re learning him. But when you are up 8-10-12 for such a long period of time you need to find ways to kill the game and make it 18-20 then they throw the towel. But they hung around and they made a run which puts the pressure on us. But this is something we can learn from.” How excited was Casspi to be back home? “I was very excited for this game and it’s been a long time. I’m excited to be back.”
3) One of the heroes especially during the overtime period was Scottie Wilbekin. The Florida Gators product had a quiet game for four quarters but when it came to taking the bull by the horns in the extra session, Wilbekin was there in full force. He drilled home a 3-pointer and then hit a pair of free throws and off Maccabi went to a 17-2 run and the 84-69 win.
“I was mad and we were mad that it didn’t end in 4 quarters. I knew we would come out more aggressive, and take care of business,” commented Wilbekin in the lockerroom following the clash. “I was a little disappointed with myself and with my play in regulation. I wasn’t involved in the game as much as I can to help the team. I wanted to use the overtime to make up for it and play the way that I can to help the team. The rest of the team stepped up as well.”
Why did Maccabi win the game? Wilbekin explained, “I hit some big shots but we picked up our performance and we played good defense they only scored 2 points in overtime. That’s the reason we won because is all comes back to defense for us.
I love watching Scottie Wilbekin play. Yes, he can be quiet for a number of quarters, but boy can he take over a game when he wants to. When Wilbekin goes into the lane he knows exactly how to get around a defender in the lane and use the backboard or send a gorgeous floater right into the basket. The guard also knows how to get his 3-point shot up once he gets free beyond the arc; sometimes it’s a thing of beauty and that’s what we got to see in overtime. Wilbekin was an artist at work with his court as the canvas. “Scottie led but everyone took part and we had an easy overtime to win the game,” said Sfairopoulos. I asked Casspi his thoughts about Wilbekin and he said the following, “We just have tough minded guys that want to compete. One of the things I love about Scottie is that he doesn’t phase from the moment. He’ll miss some but he’ll make big ones as well. Especially when the game is being controlled more by the guards we have full trust in him to make the right plays. He needs to get better like all of us and to find better ways to be more effective and to not to put so much pressure on himself but these things are going to work themselves out.”
A) Maccabi certainly has issues in the second half as their lead evaporated pretty quickly. What was the reason? There are numerous. From the personnel on the court not jelling, to the referees making what seemed to be a million stops for video reviews to Red Star chipping away and just the general pressure that the players felt as the game began to slip away. One of those players who Coach Sfairpoulos indicated was an issue for the Yellow & Blue was Ognjen Dobric the 6”7 forward who hit a pair of triples to drill down the lead. “They hit some tough shots from their big guys and this created pressure. When it was a ten point lead, they scored some tough shots, but we wanted to win a lot and this created extra pressure. We didn’t make good decisions on both offense and defense and didn’t execute and then we gave up some easy layups.”
B) Wilbekin shared his feelings as to why Red Star was able to get back into the game, “We weren’t as aggressive and played passive. They pushed us on defense, they got what they wanted we had bad possessions.”
C) Nate Wolters also spoke about some of the problems his team faced over the course of the second half, “We got off to a great start and in the 4th quarter we had a rough time on offense. We just couldn’t get stops didn’t run good offense and didn’t get good shots and we are fortunate to win.”
Did the referees play a part in Maccabi’s troubles? “No comment,” was the answer I got from Wolters.
And what did the Coach tell the squad right before OT? “Coach said let’s go, there’s 5 minutes and it’s a tie game. We had good luck to win and we know the feeling from last week so it’s good to be on the other end of it,” said Wolters.
D) All in all the fans went home happy with their team putting up their first win, “We gave a good win to our president Shimon Mizrahi on his birthday and this game is a present for him,” explained Sfairpoulos. While Wilbekin echoed his coach’s words, “The fans were great and I am happy we got the win on Shimon’s birthday.”
Happy Birthday Shimon! Until 120!