Hapoel Jerusalem defeated PAOK 71-61 and clinched first place in Group G of the Basketball Champions League to advance to the Top 16 and second group stage round of the competition. The two teams went back and forth in the first half, but Chris Johnson together with Levi Randolph, Zach Hankins and Speedy Smith wrapped up the victory with a dominant second half.
Johnson scored 16 points while Hankins and Randolph each added 13 points in the win. Michael Gilmore and Andrew Harrison each scored 12 points in the loss. Next week Jerusalem will host Benfica at their temporary home in Serbia.
Over 25 families of those affected by the ongoing war against Hamas were in attendance at Pionir Arena in Belgrade to cheer Hapoel Jerusalem on, including Ofir Engel who had been held hostage for close to two months in Gaza along with his loved ones.
“The game was literally the way we were expecting it to be,” Jerusalem Head Coach Aleksandar Dzikic began. “They are a tough team and play physical basketball. To be successful against them you have to be physical, stop crying and fight. Some guys were crying more than they needed to cry and then we found the guys who were not crying and we won in the end. This was important as we were first in the group.”
“We understand that we are not in a rhythm or flow and we are playing in two different countries with two different teams and anytime that we play with structure we should be happy. All these games should be played in a packed gym but it is what it is, it’s not easy to keep guys focussed and still ready to sacrifice for the common goals.”
Zach Hankins spoke about the win and the spacial guests that were in attendance, “We weren’t happy with how we played them last game and weren’t strong enough in the paint and on defensive coverages. Some shots weren’t falling in and we didn’t do well shooting free throws, but we out-rebounded them and drew many free throws drawing contact. But we still have a lot to improve on.
“We had some family members of some people who have been killed in the conflict and families who are being held hostage. We are happy they were with us and thank them very much. That was very special and we hope everyone ends up safe.”
Ofir Engel who was held hostage spoke about the game as well from his point of view, “The game was good but Jerusalem didn’t start well and couldn’t hit their shots. But things improved in the second half and the ball started going into the basket as we opened up a gap and won the game.”
Speedy Smith and Chris Johnson found the hoop for Hapoel Jerusalem while Michael Gilmore and Stavros Schizas countered for PAOK as the first quarter ended deadlocked at 16-16. Levi Randolph started to score for the Reds while Andrew Harrison answered, but a triple by Oz Blayzer put Aleksandar Dzikic’s squad in front 33-30 at halftime.
Zach Hankins started to put his mark on the game in the paint while veteran Chris Johnson also scored to bump the Jerusalem advantage up to 54-40 after thirty minutes of action. Harrison and Michalis Tsairelis started to cut into the lead but Levi Randolph, Johnson along with key baskets by Khadeen Carrington and Smith wrapped up the win.
In Israeli League action, Hapoel Galil Elyon picked up their first win of the campaign as they downed Hapoel Haifa 88-71 at Romema. Lotan Amsalem, Roi Huber and Lior Carreira got busy for Hapoel Galil Elyon as they grabbed an early double digit lead but Amit Gershon, Mike McGuirl and Ofek Avital pulled Hapoel Haifa to within just one point, 42-41 at halftime.
However, that would be as close as the Carmel Reds would get as Barak Peleg’s trio of Carreira, Huber and Amsalem along with Miron Ruina and James Feldeine pulled away from Guy Goodes’s team to take the victory. Next up for Galil Elyon will be a date at Hapoel Jerusalem on Saturday night while Haifa will welcome Bnei Herzliya on Monday evening.
Huber scored 20 points and dished out 11 assists, Carreira added 20 points and 10 rebounds, Amsalem chipped in with 16 points as Ruina scored 12 points and grabbed 12 boards in the win. Gershon scored 20 points, McGuirl added 16 points and Jon Davis scored 12 points in the loss.