Elitzur Ramla finds itself one win away from winning the Athena Winner League – the Israeli Women’s Premier Basketball League – after an 89-84 victory at home over Bnot Ashdod in game 2 of the finals series.
Shakira Austin (28 points, 18 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks), Alyssa Baron (26 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists), Alysha Clark (14 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists) and Elina Babkina (13 points, 3 rebounds and 16 assists) led the way for the victors, while Natisha Hiedeman (29 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and 7 assists), Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (20 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal and 6 assists) and Liz Cambage (14 points, 16 rebounds, 1 steal and 3 assists) were in double figures for the visitors.
Austin, who has been the star of the series – and again last night had a game-high performance index rating of 43 – started game 2 right where she left off in game 1 with a huge block on Cambage on the first play of the game. However, unlike game 1, in which Ramla led from start to finish, Ashdod got the jump on the hosts, with an early 6-0 lead after a minute and a half with baskets to Cambage and Hiedeman, before Clark steadied the home team with a 3-pointer to get them on the board. It was a high-scoring first 10 minutes, in which Baron scored 12 points for Ramla (on 4/5 from behind the arc) and each of Hiedeman and Walker scored 9 points for Ashdod. However, neither of the teams were able to break away, with Hiedeman hit a buzzer-beater 3-pointer to give Ashdod a 30-28 lead after the first quarter.
Ashdod got the better of Ramla for most of the second quarter – with Hiedeman again difficult to stop with 7 points for the period – and with a little over 3 minutes remaining in the half Ashdod was leading 46-39. However, 5 points from Austin and 2 from Babkina in the dying minutes of the half reduced Ashdod’s lead to 2 points, leading 48-46 after 20 minutes.
Ashdod again started the third quarter strongly and had a 60-52 lead halfway after 5 minutes. However, Ramla again clawed their way back and even took a one-point lead with less than 30 seconds left in the quarter courtesy of a 3-pointer from Babkina, before Liz Cambage put in a buzzer-beater under the basket to give Ashdod a slender 69-68 lead going into the last change.
The final quarter was an arm-wrestle for the most part, with the teams trading buckets for a majority of it. When Walker put in two free throws with a little over 4 minutes to go to put Ashdod up 80-78, there was hope that if they could steal back home court and even the series. However, Ramla looked like a team hungrier for the win and finished the game with an 11-4 run, including a layup from captain Eden Rotberg (5 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists) – who held Hiedeman to only 5 points in the last quarter – to take a 2-0 lead in the best of 5 finals series.
Ramla coach Shira Haelion summed up her team’s win simply: “One word: character. The girls showed character. We were down the whole game. Ashdod played great today, they came prepared, but we didn’t break down. I said to the team in one of the timeouts, ‘Girls, it’s all in your head. If you stick together – 27 assists again, we improved our defense immensely in the second half, Eden [Rotberg] came in and made a great adjustment on Natisha [Hiedeman]. Really, credit to Ashdod, but even more credit to my players today. I’m really proud of them.”
“I can’t really put an answer to it now until I go watch the film,” Ashdod coach Le’coe Willingham said of her team’s collapse in the last minutes of the game. “These games always come down to the details. You’ve got to execute for 40 minutes. It’s that, because we controlled the tempo of this game – we controlled the entire game. Then we just made dumb-headed mistakes. And those mistakes are always going to cost you in these types of games.”
Baron, who shot 8/13 from 3-point range, was proud of both her effort and the team’s performance: “Just a lot of practice, staying in the gym and shooting extra and coaches and teammates believing in me, knowing that if they pass me that ball, I’m going to get it in. I’m just so proud of the team for this win. We really competed tonight, they did not make it easy for us. Great team and it was a tough game tonight.”
The series will return to Ashdod for game 3 this coming Thursday, where the home team will try to keep the series, and their championship hopes, alive. However, recent history is against them, as the last two times that a team was up 2-0 in a finals series, that team won the series 3-0: in the 2018/19 season, Ramla swept Ashdod; in the 2017/18 season, Ashdod swept Ramla. The third game in both those series? In Ashdod.
“We’ve been taking it one game at a time, but now that it’s game 3, for sure [we’ll be thinking about winning the championship],” Baron said of the next game. “We want a repeat of last year and everyone wants to win.”