It was a day of comebacks for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Whether it was getting back in the win column, or the return of Darrun Hilliard from suspension or Jake Cohen playing his best game of the season, head coach Oded Katash was able to work his 10 man rotation to almost perfection.
Other than a small hiccup near the end of the third quarter when Valencia came back to cut the yellow-and-blue lead to 49-47, Maccabi was never threatened as the rolled off a 84-68 win in front of the home fans at Yad Eliyahu ahead of the there straight road games including an Italian double week coming up.
The game itself also saw a comeback in the club’s defense as they forced Valencia to cough up 21 balls while also winning the battle of the boards 34-31 in the victory.
“It was a good game and we were able to press them and had plenty of energy,” Katash explained at the post game press conference. “There were a few minutes that we were not focused but we forced them into 21 turnovers and that was the game plan to take the win.”
The bench boss also spoke about a key timeout that was taken when Valencia had cut the lead to just 2 points and it looked like Maccabi could have headed south very quickly, “In moments like that you don’t have to make changes, sometimes you just have to take a timeout to get the players back to the basics and to take a breather. We wanted to take a break and get back to that plan.”
However, by far the biggest story of the 40 minutes was Hilliard’s comeback which saw him score 11 points and hand out 4 assists, with a number of crucial baskets when Maccabi was teetering on disaster.
The veteran Euroleague swingman had been shelved by Katash due to unspecified reasons but it’s suspected the suspension was due to a number of Tweets that were later deleted. But it was clear that both Katash and Hilliard let bygones be bygones and it’s back to business for both sides.
“Hilliard was good and that is what I wanted to see,” Katash opined. “It was good that he was able to get into the game and whatever I had to say about his situation was said already. We all like Darrun and we’re all happy for him.”
The 29-year old Bethlehem, Pennsylvania native also spoke about his comeback and how difficult it has been for him to integrate into the team, “First I wanted the fans to embrace me. Given the circumstances I just wanted the fans to accept me and understand I’m human and that I am happy to be out there. As simple as that sounds I’m just happy to play the game I love.”
“Absolutely this has been the toughest start in a team in my career. I believe that God does not give us something that you can’t handle. I was chosen to go through that. It helped me see things clearly and get closer to my teammates and be more of a leader.”
So good was Hilliard and critical in this win, his performance was recognized and was named the MVP of the game, beating out Lorenzo Brown who was stellar with 15 points and 6 assists. But the prize really didn’t phase Hilliard that much, “I am not one who looks for accolades. That’s not my style. I just go out there and play get the win for my team. I’m ok if I wasn’t the MVP.”
Hilliard’s teammates were also more than happy to have him back in the fold and it seemed just as Bonzie Colson had indicated aheads of the game that the lockerroom was just fine and that seemed to be the case throughout the game and the 5 minutes that the media was allowed in the players sanctuary.
“It just speaks to Darrun’s character and we are all happy for his game,” center Josh Nebo who scored 8 points and grabbed 6 rebounds said.
Austin Hollins also spoke about Hilliard’s showing, “Darrun had a great game. It’s great to see him come out and play well tonight. That’s what we need. Hopefully moving forward we can continue with this.”
Jake Cohen, who himself played more minutes against Valencia (14:22) than he had all season long in other Euroleague games combined sees that not only the Hilliard comeback being key but that the team didn’t come a part at the seams as it could have during the past couple of weeks.
“I’m very optimistic. We have great guys in the room good chemistry and good professionals and that gets me excited for what is to come.”
Cohen who checked in with 8 points and 5 rebounds was Maccabi’s X-Factor despite not having really been an anchor so far this season for a club that at times has needed his leadership. Sure, the forward has played his part in Israeli league games, but the domestic league is one thing and the Euroleague is something totally different.
“Part of being a pro is to stay ready. I have always had confidence in myself and to be a good teammate. I like to think I prepare for every game the same way, no matter who we play against whether a player is injured or not injured I want to keep the same routine and same habits and give my 100% no matter what.”
With that in mind, fans and management and even media expect results to come fast and furious and as each game goes by especially in continental competition passes by life in the Euroleague becomes much more do or die so to speak even when trying to put together an almost brand new team that needs to play better on the defensive end of the game.
“Maccabi is not necessarily the best place for patience,” Cohen said by his locker following the contest. “But that comes with really good teams, you’re not going to have a great defensive team right away, it takes time.”
Hollins who has been in the same boat at Cohen at times this season understands exactly what the big man is going through, “Jake gave us great minutes tonight. As professionals we need to be called when our name is called and Jake did that tonight.”
As a trip to Milano and Bologna are on tap for the yellow-and-blue, Katash will most certainly need a ready to go Hilliard because there is concern that Wade Baldwin will be out for some time after aggravating a hamstring issue. The guard will most definitely miss the upcoming trip to Italy and Katash knows full well that this jaunt will not be easy no matter how much Milano under Ettore Messina has struggled and are sitting with a 3-9 record mired in last place and Sergio Scariolo’s Bologna are 4-7 in 13th.
“It will be difficult to play against the Italian teams on the road,” Katash said.
With Hilliard back and back in black so to speak, he’ll need to make sure to be in tip top shape in order to help Maccabi play to their potential as a big week is ahead, “I am tired as hell because I hadn’t played in a long time. We all need the win on the road. It’s time. Hopefully the black jerseys bless us and give us the magic to take this attitude tonight.”