Bnei Herzliya host Hapoel Holon on Monday night (21:00) in game one of the best of three Israel Basketball League Finals with game two slated for Thursday evening and if necessary game three on the following Sunday.
Arguably the two best teams in the country will tip-off against one another for Holy Land Hoops supremacy as the league title is on the line. This will mark the first time in 29 years that neither Maccabi Tel Aviv or Hapoel Jerusalem will take part in battling out for the championship after Herzilya knocked off the Yellow & Blue while Holon took care of the Reds in the semifinals.
Just before the two squads take to the HaYovel Arena, Herzliya forward Andy Van Vliet spoke to The Sports Rabbi about having the opportunity to end the season on a high note, along with some of the reasons why the club had a successful campaign to date as well as being the surprise package under head coach Oren Aharoni.
“I don’t think a lot of people expected us to be here. It’s amazing that we could accomplish this and I hope that we can finish the job.”
The Belgian continued discussing his feelings about the upcoming series, “I feel like we played with a lot of confidence in these playoffs and we are peaking at the right time. Holon are a great team and they had a great series against Jerusalem. I would have loved to go up against met my guy Retin Obasohan, but we are really peaking and every game we play together we get better and better. Chemistry is great and we are ready for it.”
One of the reasons why Herzliya has had a successful run this season was due to the fact that the club decided to build a roster based with 5 foreigners who would play each game with the addition of a number of top level Israelis. After having almost been relegated in the prior season, the Herzliya general manager Zufer Avdija understood the importance of having a high quality base from the outset and not have to struggle as the season continued on.
As Van Vliet explained the methodology worked to perfection, “It has had a lot of influence having registered five foreigners. When you got guys like Shawn Dawson who is a great Israeli player and you got Sandy Cohen and Yair Kravitz who are great as well shows that we got a great mix of foreigners and Israeli players. I think that is what makes us really good. Five foreign players is an advantage that a lot of teams don’t have and we have a great rotation.”
While looking at the final series, it’s clear that it will be one that will feature two varying styles of play where each side will have to play their own basketball and not try to adjust to play the way that the other team does. Players like Joe Ragland, Tyrus McGee, Chris Johnson and Michale Kyser to name a few of Holon’s stars provide a much smaller lineup than the likes of Herzliya’s Chinanu Onuaku, Chris Babb, Maurice Kemp and Van Vliet.
The 26-year old feels that Herzliya will be able to find a way to do just that, “We have a lot of different lineups that we can try and I feel that we match up well with pretty much every team in the league. They are a great team and have played great in the playoffs. It will definitely be an interesting matchup. They beat us twice this season and we beat them once, so we will be hungry to tip the scale in our favor. I think it will be a great final series and it’ll be an amazing matchup and I’m looking forward to it.”
Van Vliet, who grew up in Belgium and also attended high school in Spain, attended the University of Wisconsin and then William & Mary in the United States where he averaged 13.2 points and 8.7 rebounds per game in his senior season (19/20). From there it was off to BC Šiauliai in Lithuania where he spent an interesting campaign in which he chalked up 11.1 points and 5.8 boards per contest. However, he feels that he has found a warm home here in Israel where he has put up stellar numbers, 10.9 points and 5 rebounds per game in a much more difficult and challenging league.
“I was in Lithuania last year and with COVID-19 there was not a lot going on. When you come to a country like Israel where basketball really lives, COVID is disappearing and fans are at the game. I remember the first game of the season at Hapoel Tel Aviv and the fans there just gave me goosebumps. I love living in Israel, playing in Israel and I can’t really complain. People here are amazing too. People at the club do everything for us, it’s really like a family club and it really wants to make you perform well and do well for those guys and return the love. Now it’s time to give them something back.”
One of the biggest decisions that Herzliya made ahead of their semifinal series against Maccabi Tel Aviv was to register Quinton Hooker in place of DJ Cooper who had come in for the former after he had suffered an injury. Although Hooker was ready to come back, it was still a surprise that he would be listed after Cooper had led the team past Hapoel Haifa in the quarterfinals and that he had not missed a bit in the 14 games that the point guard had played in his stead.
“Obviously they are both great, great players,” Van Vliet said. “I don’t think that there was a wrong decision. It’s up to the club to make those decisions. We played will Quinton all year he has been our leader on the court and he’s been an amazing player for us. He made some huge plays for us over the course of the season including against Maccabi. He is our anchor on defense and on offense. Even with DJ too, it was great for him to come in like he did he led the team in a great way too. Amazing to play with both players, I can’t complain.”
After Chris Babb signed a two year extension with Herzliya, the question is who else will also continue on with the club. While the league’s Player of the Season Chinanu Onuaku will most probably be heading to the Euroleague or perhaps even the NBA, there is a very goods chance that Babb may be joined by Hooker, Maurice Kemp and Van Vliet himself.
“I’m really happy for Chris, that’s a great extension and a great deal for the club too. We’ll see going into the summer, I have an option year here and I would love to stay here but you never know what happens.”