Hapoel Tel Aviv is the better team: The Reds head to the finals thanks to their winners while Maccabi spirals into the abyss

Feb 15, 2022 | Holyland Hoops

Hapoel Tel Aviv is the better team. Let that sink in for a minute or perhaps an hour. Hapoel Tel Aviv is the better team as head coach Danny Franco made sure to say after the Reds dominated Maccabi Tel Aviv in a 90-80 win to advance to the Israel State Cup Finals.

The team which has gone through years of rebuilding after returning to the top level of Israeli basketball due to bankruptcy. The team that always seemed to lose in knockout games against their city rivals. The team that hasn’t been to the Cup finals since 1994 and who haven’t won it since 1993 are just one game away, one win away over Bnei Herzliya to tasting glory once again.

Just as Hapoel has done to Maccabi and Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad all season long, or perhaps just the last couple of months, by winning two league Derbies and then adding the cherry on top of the ice cream, Franco’s crew took it to the yellow-and-blue. Out hustling, out playing, out rebounding and just plain old wanting to win the game more with of course the likes of winners in J’Covan Brown and James Young, Hapoel Tel Aviv deservedly took the victory and no one, absolutely no one can say otherwise.

J’Covan Brown – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

“Brown is a special player,” Franco said about his star guard after the game. “Before he arrived here at Hapoel, I’ll be honest we had been worried and that it may have been a mistake. But he gave us his word when I spoke to him over the summer in the United States. I told him I’m taking him at his word that he is fine and that he is ready to go. He already knew Bar Timor and Idan Zalmanson and he now took us to the final. The three of them owe me one when they were with Jerusalem and beat me with Nahariya. Now it’s my turn.”

Franco definitely has earned the right to battle for the Cup after having beaten Maccabi not only three times, but having won those games via knockout, out coaching Sfairopoulos every which way.

Whether it was Josh Owens who single-handedly kept the Reds afloat in the first quarter with absolutely superb play in the paint scoring 8 points after having come early on for Idan Zalmanson who had collected two fouls but came in with a huge triple with 34 seconds left in the half to cut the lead to two points.

Josh Owens – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Or if it was Egor Koulechov who nailed a last second buzzer beater heave at the end of the second quarter to give Hapoel the 45-44 lead and send Maccabi into the break on a downhill spiral.

The bottom line is that the Reds have winners. Players who are comfortable in their own skin and know what to do either when the chips are down or when they need a basket in the worst way. Franco has players that have been on these types of situations and have won the Cup and the league title before and their experience paid off in money time.

“It’s really amazing,” Zalmanson said. “We didn’t play great in the first half but we played aggressively and that is what kept us in the game. The second half saw us score and make some big shots to take the win. I know that Josh Owens gives us quiet and he can score. He knew what to do. He kept us in the game in the first half with his scoring. He’s just a special player.”

Ioannis Sfairopoulos – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Sfairopoulos on the other hand was at a complete loss and perhaps managed one of his worst games in his four seasons at Maccabi. Whether it was not taking a timeout near the end of the second quarter to ensure the yellow-and-blue would head into halftime with a 44-39 lead or whether it was his lineups and the lack of playing his veterans captain John DiBartolomeo and Jake Cohen in a game that he knew he needed to win. Sfairopoulos did everything wrong on this night which may very well end up costing him his job.

DiBartolomeo who has been in these types of games before played 10:13 and Cohen was on the court for just 3:47 after having been critical pieces in Maccabi’s Euroleague win over CSKA Moscow just last week. Where did these two disappear and why wouldn’t the coach put them on the floor when he needed their experience the most?

A shaken Maccabi captain spoke about not having the chance to help while he also talked about the players knowing the magnitude of the Derby itself, “Rotation and doing our job. Focus doing the best we can for the team. I obviously want to help the team but we want to win and we didn’t win.”

“I think the players understand and we have guys that have been here for a number of years. The ones who may not have been here for some time didn’t participate and we all knew what we were playing for.”

Dibartolomeo also referenced as to who the leader of the team is, “Coach is our leader and there are guys on the roster who are as well.”

John Dibartolomeo, Scottie Wilbekin and Iftach Ziv – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Unfortunately for Maccabi, the leader has not made a good impression on a number of his players including those who were left out of the squad and didn’t not participate in the game.

These players decided that it would be a good idea to post a video following the loss on Instagram at 4:40am celebrating and saying, “Bad game but we don’t care its Valentine’s Day.”

Not exactly the look that Maccabi management wanted to have to deal with after a devastating loss to their eternal rivals. Of course that was a mess of the club’s own doing by not jettisoning players earlier in the season when there had already been issues.

However, the biggest issue that the club has to deal with right now looks to be coming to ahead right now which is the status of coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos who will most likely be out of his job by the end of the day. Unfortunately for the Yellow & Blue faithful this move is also a number of months late as the Maccabi brass have hemmed and hawed for weeks upon end not being able to make a decision as to what to do with a coach who has clearly lost total control of his players.

When the coach happens to be the leader of the team, this is what seems to happen as there is no one player or a number of players who can take the squad and set them straight.

Scottie Wilbekin – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Scottie Wilbekin was Sfairopoulos’s anointed leader and star but when the going gets tough he never ends up on the post game dais talking about what went wrong or what went right. In fcat, the bench boss didn’t even reference the guard.

“There’s no one guy that needs to calm down the others, there is no one guy,” Sfairopoulos said. “The first half we were calm and played well but not aggressive on defense. When we started to play I tried to calm down the team in the second half. When you get under pressure and you try to calm down the team, you need experienced players when you were down. The fight we gave was just not enough.”

No question that the fight was not enough and for the Maccabi Tel Aviv squad of 2021/22 that fight is about to take a wild turn.

Maccabi has to remember that Hapoel Tel Aviv is the better team.

Josh Owens – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

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