Bnei Herzliya did the unthinkable and knocked Maccabi Tel Aviv right off of their throne as defending Israel Basketball League champs coming back from an 0-1 hole to take their semifinal series 2-1. After a game one loss, Oren Aharoni’s squad recorded two absolutely spectacular performances to send the yellow-and-blue to the golf course while Herzliya punched there ticket to the finals with a dominating 96-74 win.
The visitors took the bull by the horns and walked right into Yad Eliyahu, a place that they had not beaten Maccabi Tel Aviv in all season long and put the hammer down right from the get go taking a quick lead and never looking back in a showing for the ages. Many people may be surprised that the yellow-and-blue imploded against Herzliya as they are considered to be the top of the top, the creme a la creme of Israeli basketball, but for those who have watched Maccabi all season long, the defeat comes as no surprise.
The same can be true about Herzliya as anyone who have watched them play this campaign knew that they sport arguably the best player in Israel in center Chinanu Onuaku who had another incredible 25 point, 15 rebound and 5 assist showing. Onuaku, whose brother Arinze was a one-time Maccabi Tel Aviv player was able to do as he pleased in the paint, scoring at will against a soft defense that looked as if they had very little interest to mess it up with the big man. What is even more telling about the poor interior defense is that Herzliya scored 44 of their 96 points in the paint. Add to that a demolition on the boards to the tune of 42-33 and you have a recipe to success on one side and disaster on the other.
But the real secret to Herzliya’s success isn’t just Onuaku inside but the entire team who sports multiple players in double digits every single game as they move the ball around at lighting speed, always looking for the open man and the best opportunity to score. They rarely if ever just chuck the ball up and hope for the best, an attribute that Maccabi Tel Aviv couldn’t get away from.
“It’s a key for us as rot who we are, our identity,” Herzliya bench boss Oren Aharoni explained. “We are team that likes to play together and the best players like to make everyone around them better. They are players with high IQ’s in Chris Babb, Chinanu Onuaku, Quinton Hooker and others. They all look for the right pass and here again we had five players in double digits. I’m very proud that Shawn Dawson had a great game after a bit of a tough go, but credit to the all of the players that got him into the game. They are smart players who like to pass the ball.”
Not in Aharoni’s wildest dreams did he ever think that his team would be able to walk into Maccabi’s home arena and not only close out the series, but close it out by over twenty points along with taking two of three games against a Euroleague team as Herzliya sent them packing.
“I could have never dreamed of such a result. I was prepared for a though game and that Scottie Wilbekin (22 points) would take on a lot. But that is the greatness of our team, to be able to do the right thing at the right time. We were so focused all game long other than a mistake here or there. The players executed and they deserve a huge amount of credit.”
After the game one loss, Aharoni had been second guessed as to why the club listed point guard Quinton Hooker who had not played in some time due to an injury in place of DJ Cooper who had been excellent in his stead. But the coach believed that this was the right move for the team and he was more than justified after winning the series and seeing Hooker run the offense like a well oiled machine depots having missed a significant amount of time.
“I’m really thankful,” Hooker began. “It was a long tough few months and I have a great staff that helped me get back. It was a long time getting back into things. DJ Cooper did an amazing job, they made the decision and they trusted me. I’m thankful that I can play this game and when they called my name I was ready as I had been practicing 4-5 weeks beforehand. I’m thankful to be out there.״
Over on the Maccabi side of the ledger there was plenty of disappointment coming from the the entire club after the loss knowing that they won’t be able to win a 5th Israeli league championship in a row. The squad had issues a plenty all season with plenty of good games and performances to go along with, well some that left something to be desired.
Avi Even, who moved down the the scouting department to take over as the interim head coach after Ioannis Sfairopoulos was let go in the middle of the season did the best that he could, but his inexperience on the bench along with a wet behind the ears staff didn’t do the club any favors. While Maccabi went on a great run to get into the Eurolegue playoffs on adrenaline as they took advantage of the Russian clubs being suspended, at some point that adrenaline will run out and that is what occurred as some of the players looked as if they were treating the playoff games and in this case a do or die match as a regular season contest.
“When we got back into the Israeli league from the Euroleague playoffs, we had issues,” Even said. “Our energy level dropped after those games. It was a season with lots of ups and downs and we didn’t have consistency. While we had some great games in the Euroleague and huge wins in Barcelona we also lost in the Cup semifinals and now in a playoff series.”
The coach also referred to the task he took when he was asked to take over the coaching reins, “I came into a challenging situation with this club. I came in with all of my heart and that I was going to give 100%. I came here to fight until the end. We achieved a great goal (in getting to the Euroleague playoffs) but we didn’t achieve next one. Any time I will be called upon to help, I will do so. I came to do the best that I could and I feel that I did.”
One of the main problems that plagued Maccabi was the inconsistency which saw them go on numerous streaks throughout the season, with good and bad. Another issue was the lack of commitment by some of the players which was seen on numerous occasions and was something that Avi Even spoke about time and time again, that there needed to be commitment.
Finally and perhaps most critical of them all was the chemistry or lack of within the team as veteran Israeli forward Jake Cohen said following the game when asked if he could elaborate on what captain John Dibartolomeo said a couple of weeks ago that the team’s issues were beyond basketball.
“It’s something that we’ve been struggling with all year. I’ll have a better answer once I’ve stopped playing but I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, we didn’t have the chemistry as a team and it’s very hard to overcome. It’s something that bothered me all season.”
As Maccabi will now look to pick up the pieces and bid adieu to many of their players and welcome in new ones, the yellow-and-blue will also be looking to bring in a new coach for the upcoming season as a number of names have already begun to float around.
One of those names should be Oren Aharoni, Herzliya’s coach who worked in the Maccabi youth department for many years and will now try to do the unthinkable in winning the league title.
“There is a lot of pressure at Maccabi’s youth department and I’m not a person that looks back. After last season I felt that it was the right move to leave and continue my career. I’m happy that I was able to help players develop at Maccabi but I’m also very proud of the players here at Herzliya.”
“Playing in the final is new for me,” Aharoni continued. “We had a lot of peaks this season and we have played some very tough games along with winning the Israel State Cup. We have such a great bunch of guys. They are players who come and work hard every single day and never miss a practice, do the video work that they need to and do whatever they need to. We have gone on such a good journey with players who are so committed.”