No Pressure, No Problem: Maccabi looks ahead after big win over Barcelona as Ante Zizic and big men star in win

Maccabi Tel Aviv played the perfect game against Barcelona in a 99-94 overtime win at home to sweep the season series from Saras Jasikevicius’s squad and send 3,000 fans home very happy after what someone would consider an unexpected win over the Euroleague’s best team.

First place Barcelona has been by far the most consistent and powerful team in the league steamrolling almost every opponent that has been in their way, except for the Yellow & Blue. After edging Barca 68-67 earlier in the season, Maccabi came into the home clash loosey-goosey after being officially eliminated from postseason contention.

Ioannis Sfairopoulos & Scottie Wilbekin – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

No pressure, no problem for Maccabi as they fought tooth and nail with Barcelona for 45 minutes to notch the victory. “We played without pressure and we didn’t start the season well and didn’t prepare in the proper way,” Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos said. “The losses we had at the start of the season put big pressure on us. When there’s no pressure it’s a completely different game.”

The dynamic duo of Ante Zizic and Dragan Bender dominated the inside while the other forwards, Angelo Caloiaro and Omri Casspi also played phenomenal ball. The bigs scored 63 of the 99 points (64%) while having scored 53 of 65 points (82%) going into the 4th quarter. Those are numbers form the forwards that Maccabi hasn’t seen the entire season.

“Tonight was my night,” Zizic said. “I made some easy shots and my teammates were finding me for some easy baskets.”

Ante Zizic – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

“Everyone is capable to play at a high level and when we have guards as good as we have, it opens up the big guys and we took advantage of that tonight,” Caloiaro explained.

The key words uttered by Caloairo is that ‘everyone is capable’ which is true, but something that Maccabi has rarely seen this season with all four players averaging under ten points a game.

However, on this night all of the stars aligned for Coach Sfairopoulos, “We have supported Zizic and Bender all season long as we know they are good players and they are playing for the first time at this level. They are learning and they aren’t 30 years old. They are both only 24 years old with talent and were both in the NBA. They needed time to adjust.”

Dragan Bender – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

“Ante fought really hard on defense and when we played well on defense it helps our offense, we got good rhythm from the defense and executed better. But the guys protected the paint really well,” the coach concluded.

While Maccabi’s big were so dominant throughout the first three frames, they were less so down the stretch as both Zizic played only two minutes and change in the overtime period and six minutes in the fourth quarter. Omri Casspi who according to the coach isn’t on a minutes restriction anymore, played only three minutes the entire second half with all of them coming in the third period. Caloiaro also only played three minutes over the final 15 of the game. What prompted the change in tactics by Sfairopoulos?

“They played switching defense and with a smaller lineup. They switched the pick and rolls and packed the paint and we tried with penetration, sometimes to pass and sometimes to shoot.”

Ante Zizic & Dragan Bender – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Zizic said he wasn’t bothered that he didn’t play during some of the critical moments of the game despite being the team’s highest scorer, “It’s the coach’s decision and you have to respect that. I played 30 minutes and he saw other players could be better in that moment; I have nothing against that.”

There’s no question that Maccabi is going to fight over these last five games and give fits to their challengers be it Red Star, Khimki, ASVEL and Zenit. If the Yellow & Blue can finish the campaign at 17-17 which is still a possibility it will give them a good push as they head into the twilight of the Israeli season as well as the State Cup. Will it make a difference as to the personnel who will be back for next season? Probably not, but winning is always a good thing.

“We never gave up,” Dragan Bender stated. “These last five games we’ve got to fight til the end. We’ve got to get better in every game and continue in the Israeli League. The last five games, everybody wants to come out and show up. As long as we play together, we’ll have nights like this.”

Ante Zizic – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Zizic echoed his teammate’s comments while also reflecting back on some of the team’s issues, “This year we lost games by one, two and three points and we should be higher in the standings, but we want to show that we can beat everybody as well.”

“Winning this game gave us happiness but also some feeling that we could have done better,” explained Sfairopoulos.

Maccabi could have certainly done better and if the club would have had fans in the stands especially at home. With the supporters back in gear, the Yellow & Blue can rely on them pushing the team when they are down, when they need a stop or during a big run as they will be able to feed off of that energy which has been lacking all year.

Ante Zizic – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

“I played in Europe and Maccabi fans are the best, the 6th man,” exclaimed Zizic. “They are for us a reason why we won the game. When you have fan support it makes things easier.”

Sfairopoulos as always played up to the fans who constantly chant his name in support of the head coach, “I have a great relationship with the fans and they love me and I love them, they helped the team in tough moments and pressured the referees.”

Ante Zizic – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

That’s exactly what the missing ingredient was all season for Maccabi both at home and on the road as they fell by 7 points or less in 12 (!) games this season. What would have been had the Yellow & Blue split those games or even just won 3 of them? Hindsight is 20/20 and Maccabi can obviously look in the rear view mirror and play the what would have, could have and should have game.

But after being eliminated from playoff hopes at this point, Maccabi just needs to look forward. Look ahead to the future hand and hand with their fans.

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