“You know I have had a difficult time but as long as we keep winning the team matters the most.”
Maxim De Zeeuw came up big, actually really, really big when he scored the winning basket to send Hapoel Holon into the Champions League Final 8 by defeating Happy Casa Brindisi 81-79 with under a second left on the clock.
— Basketball Champions League (@BasketballCL) March 31, 2021
The Belgian has gone through a rough patch of late and unabashedly was the first to admit that at the postgame press conference, “You’re not stupid”, he said referring to the assembled media members. Shooting an abysmal 10/37 (27%) in the five Round of 16 games, De Zeeuw knows full well that he could be doing better.
But no matter, after going in for Chris Johnson who fouled out with 57 seconds left in the overtime period, De Zeeuw’s experience along with captain Guy Pnini who inbounded the ball was key in scoring the winner.
“I knew we weren’t going to have a clear shot on the basket with such little time left,” Pnini stated. “I knew I would pass the ball but the play wasn’t set. It was like a Hail Mary in football. We made eye contact and I indicated to him where to go and he went. I’m so happy for him.”
De Zeeuw broke down the play from his point of view, “It was just experience. He (Pnini) just made a small motion and I knew I had to go to that spot on the floor. I took a chance to go quicker and then I just had to put the ball in the basket. It was like a striker in football scoring a goal. After the basket I ran and ran and if they didn’t stop me I would have run forever. This was amazing for the fans and for the club.”
Being away from his family who are in Belgium and can’t enter Israel has been tough for De Zeeuw explained Pnini, “Everyone sees that he’s not having an easy time. He’s here without his family, two children and a wife and they are in Belgium all alone. If I wasn’t with my family for just a few days, I would break down. It’s not simple. I’m so happy for him. And it was just great.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken on a toll on people all around the world in so many different ways. From losing a loved one, to having one’s livelihood be taken away, there are so many stories that have impacted so, so many people.
De Zeeuw who joined the club during the November International window was originally on a contract that was supposed to end after the first phase of the Champions League season. But with Stefanos Dedas’s squad rolling along, the 2014 Belgian Player of the Year extended his deal until the end of the season.
At the end of they day, the power forward has been a consummate professional both on and off of the court adding yet another very experienced player to Holon’s team. “I want to take the win, F—- it. It was an awful game but as long as we win I’m happy. As a pro and you know when you aren’t helping the team, it’s frustrating. But the fans were amazing even after I missed the free throws. It boosts you. I played good defense and I am really grateful for the fans.”
“We have gone through a lot,” Pnini commented. “Tyrus (McGee), Chris (Johnson), Maxim, CJ (Harris) and myself have so much experience. Isaiah (Miles) is still young but we have a good mix of players and at this level when you can bring that experience, that is the key.”
Advancing to the Final 8 is a huge accomplishment for a Holon team that so many times were left at the altar coming oh so close to making it to the last stages of the Champions League. This time however, they did it and the key ingredient along with the experience has been most definitely the character of the players on the squad, Pnini explained, “It’s the character and the quality of the players. I can count on one hand how many fights there may have been between the players.”
Head Coach Stefanos Dedas knows full well that he has a special group of guys playing for him at the club and also understands how his team punched their ticket to the Final 8, “At the start of the lockdown we were watching the Final 8 in Athens for the previous season. We watched this event and we were just viewers, it was far way from us.
“But during the competition we made some very big wins and we went step by step. The wins against AEK and Cholet, plus we beat Maccabi and Jerusalem in Israel, we gifted Maccabi two titles but we knew that we were capable of great thing. The chemistry and unselfishness doesn’t bother the players. Now we are here with three games left and it’s fun time.”
While it may be fun time, winning it all and perhaps even hosting the Final 8 is a definite possibility, “Why not?” Pnini said. “We’ve passed the tough part. Now we’re in the Final 8 and we’re at a point where anyone can win. We are a team that is very hard to prepare for.”
“It would be incredible if the Final 8 was here in Israel. With Europe totally closed it’s in everyone interests including FIBA to have the tournament here.”
Let’s see if Pnini’s hopes will turn into a reality but for now, Holon can bask in European glory for a but and enjoy the title of Israel’s most successful team in the continent this season.