The last thing that Oded Katash and Maccabi Tel Aviv wanted to see on the scoreboard was a 15-3 deficit after roughly 5 minutes of play against Fenerbahce. On a night that saw the festive return of Scottie Wilbekin to his former stomping ground it was Dyshawn Pierre and Nigel Hayes-Davis who just totally obliterated the yellow-and-blue to start off the game.
With Maccabi stunned and shell shocked, Katash began to make moves. First it was Roman Sorkin and then it was John Dibartolomeo and Jake Cohen who started to chip away at the lead as they found a way along with Lorenzo Brown and Jarell Martin to take a 43-39 lead into halftime.
As deep as Dimitrios Itoudis’s roster is and as many changes as the Greek bench boss could make, somehow Maccabi was able to head into the final frame 61-56 when Dibartolomeo worked his magic from deep thanks to a nice block and screen by Su Braimoh.
While Bonzie Colson was able to increase that advantage to double digits, of course, that lead evaporated very, very quickly. Fener veterans Nemanja Bjelica, Nick Calathes and Marko Guduric pulled the visitors even at 71, but Wade Baldwin and Brown closed the game out with points from the line to keep Maccabi’s Euroleague postseason hopes alive and well.
The Yellow & Blue who are now 14-13 head to Istanbul for a date with Anadolu EFES which is never going to be an easy game, but Maccabi is still in the picture as the made sure not to drop under.500 for the first time this season and live to fight yet another day.
“It’s a big one for us,” a relieved Katash said following the contest. “We found a way to fight back and changed some lineups and defense. We got over that really bad start and we showed character with the comeback. I credit the players for really believing.”
Cohen also reflected on the win, “I think we showed a lot of heart to come back from a tough start. Not our best game but you sometimes have to win the ugly ones.”
“We came back after we were slow at the start,” Sorkin explained. “We changed the game plan and these fans in this arena really helps us. Fener is a good team and a very tall one. They have size and that hurt us but we did a good job.”
As for the game plan, Katash needed to be on his toes for the entire 40 minutes of play as he needed to adjust, adjust and adjust again to everything Itoudis threw at Maccabi the coach explained, “They took many offensive rebounds in the first half and I ended up having to use a bigger lineup to counter that. In addition we went to a zone defense which worked well. Itoudis always comes into a game very prepared, he knows so much and he was Obradovic’s assistant for many years and knows how to adjust in the middle of the game.”
So well, that Itoudis knew that the defensive change gave his team a chance to pull ahead even further after a hot start, but his charges couldn’t quite find the bottom of the basket.
“We had to find different ways to score and in the second quarter we had trouble with the zone which left a lot of openings for free shots but we couldn’t capitalize on them. Combine Scottie and Dyshawn who were 2/15 from outside in a four-point game and that hurts a lot. I talked to Scottie before the game about his return and he is a great professional. He had good looks and if he made it the game would go a different way, but Scottie will keep shooting and will hit his shots.”
Katash was able to roll out a trio of Israelis in the first quarter that began to turn the tide in Sorkin, Dibartolomeo and Cohen who were able to put the coach’s “Plan B” into action.
“I knew we would use Jake in this game for matchups. With his experience, he has been there before and it was great that it worked. Jake is great and was terrific. I don’t even know what to say about John D. John is always there for Maccabi. He battles every minute he is on the floor. I very much believe in him and the players on this team and when you give them confidence, they pay you back.”
Cohen who had been in the starting lineup for a number of games this season showed that during that time as to how valuable he is in being the glue guy and making sure that the offense and defense on the floor is running smoothly. In essence he is like a coach on the court. However, over the last number of weeks the Davidson product has been moved out of a starting role and in some cases didn’t play or was not even dressed.
“I don’t think of that,” Cohen said. “it’s out of my control I try to stay ready and do my job. Even when I’m not scoring I’m still doing good things. I think I did a good job at that with the offensive rhythm and ultimately it’s important to get the win.”
Dibartolomeo time and time again shows just what a Division III player can do with a ton of hard work, sweat and tears as he has captained Maccabi for half a decade.
“I think every player needs to play to their strengths. Right now this is my role and I do the best that I can. Every player wants to play more. I want to be ready when I am called. The staff gives me confidence. I have a role and I do my best for the team.”
Cohen shared his thoughts on Dibartolomeo and their excitement after the latter hit the big 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter.
“It feels like John makes those shots all the time,” the big man chuckled. “I was so confident when it left his hand. Huge steal at the end, he is a great player and we are lucky to have him as our teammate and captain.”
Braimoh who was very instrumental in the time he was on the floor, especially when he made sure that Dibartolomeo had a clean look at the basket for that shot had played against the guard for years but now that he’s on the same side, it feels that much better.
“He hit that big three, comes up with critical steals. Definitely, John leads by example. Me being the new guy here I try to follow his lead.”
For a new guy, it’s clear as to how much Katash who coached him at Jerusalem trusts him and how critical Braimoh’s 40 seconds on the floor were for the win.
“Su goes in for a minute for just one play a defensive play and he knows that I trust him. For Su to be here, it’s a dream for him to play in the Euroleague. It’s difficult to find your spot and find your place when you join a team in the middle of a season. But we have a very good lockerroom and he has really contributed.”
“I came in to play some defense. Get a stop the best way I can. I think we had a play called and I set a good screen for John and he made the play. It’s amazing how the fans come out to the Euroleague games. It was electric. They gave us a boost. Turn that energy into something positive. Coach picks the right players and does what he needs to do. “
At the end of the day, Maccabi was able to celebrate a big win against a very tough team that Katash had said has one of the best rosters in the continent which keeps their hopes alive to find their way into the playoffs.
At no point this season has the yellow-and-blue dropped under sea level and that is a point they certainly don’t want to hit. However, right now the most important thing is to win games and that is the goal coming up when they play EFES, Cohen said.
“I can’t speak for everyone but it was not in my mindset at all. Those things don’t really matter I’m trying to win the game and focus on the details of the game. I can’t get distracted by those things. It’s a tough game coming up, they are playing better, such a talented roster.”
“It’s going to be tough and very challenging as we head to the end of the Euroleague season,” Katash explained. “We spoke about the great roster Fener has but EFES has plenty of quality as well although they may not have the same depth. We will have to be focused and make sure we take the points that we can get, they play a specific way and it’s not easy to stop. We remember the last time we played them and we had a great last quarter, but that won’t be enough in this game. If we begin the way we did against Fener we will have a very tough time.”