No Respect Jerusalem plays with chip on shoulder: Win over AEK moves Reds to within one game of Final Four

Apr 5, 2023 | Holyland Hoops

Speedy Smith’s message was crystal clear after Hapoel Jerusalem outlasted AEK Athens 64-55 in game one of their Basketball Champions League best-of-3 quarterfinal series. That the Reds get no respect. Whether it’s their defense, their offense or their coach, Jerusalem aren’t appreciated the way they feel that they should be from their peers and the competitions that they are playing in.

The star guard who scored 9 of his 20 points in the decisive final frame was referring to a General Manager survey that was released on the official BCL website just a few hours prior to tip-off where capital city players including lockdown defender Or Cornelius, head coach Aleksandar Dzikic and Speedy Smith himself earned little or no recognition whatsoever.

Speedy Smith – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Being the underdog has suited Jerusalem just fine the season as they sport an overall record of 10-2 heading into the continental playoffs and have flown way under the radar having finished in first place in both the regular season and round of 16 groups. But Dzikic has done what he’s needed to do which is to get his squad just 40 minutes from the Final Four which has been the club’s achilles heal since joining the competition more than half a decade ago.

Jerusalem came into the clash with their Greek foes after having lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv with a make shift lineup which broke the club’s 14 game winning streak across all competitions which included capturing teh Israel State Cup with a victory over the aforementioned yellow-and-blue.

However, the defeat to Maccabi was absolutely inconsequential as the reds raced off to a 21-0 run to close out the first quarter to take a 26-6 lead after ten minutes of play. From that moment on the stage was set for Jerusalem and put AEK in a very precarious situation where they would need to work awfully hard to dig out of a 20-point hole and expend oodles of energy.

Or Cornelius – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

The catalyst without a doubt was Israeli Or Cornelius whose father Greg was once upon a time played for Hapoel Jerusalem back in the 1989-90 season. The 25-year old Cornelius has played for a number of teams, most recently Hapoel Gilboa Galil where he began coming into his own as a player who is known for his hard nosed defending and solid work ethic.

“It’s very disrespectful that Cornelius doesn’t get the credit as a defender that he should get,” Smith lamented in his opening monologue. “I literally feel that he is the best defender in the league hands down. People should look at that more. We are the best defensive team in the league and we have the best defender. It started with Or on defense and that created the tempo for the offense.”

Cornelius did in fact help Jerusalem to that 21-0 run as his steal and dunk set off an avalanche of points from every direction as AEK couldn’t find a way to stop the bleeding as the Reds landed a massive first punch. While the guard did not shoot well form deep going 0/6 from beyond the arc, he did finish the game with 8 points to go along with a pair of steals that both led to baskets.

Or Cornelius – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“It is so rare that your teammates are praising that much as we do about Cornelius,” Dzikic, who lovingly coddled Cornelius as a timeout was called commented following the game. “He’s a game changer in so many ways and people don’t understand that he uses a lot of energy on the defensive end and sometimes when he is open he is missing.”

Cornelius signing with Jerusalem in the off-season raised some eyebrows wondering if the former Maccabi Rishon Le’Zion and Nes Ziona guard was good enough to feature a big club like the Reds, but that notion was very quickly dismissed in the preseason as it was clear that Cornelius was up to the task to take on both the Israeli league and the BCL’s best.

“Every player that he plays against struggles,” Smith said. “It’s ridiculous and I hate it that I don’t see his name mentioned for all of these awards whether it’s in the local Israeli League or the Champions League. He is the head of our defense and he starts us off for us to play offensively. It really makes me mad that he doesn’t get this type of attention for this.”

Or Cornelius – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Whether it was diving for a loose ball, not giving an opponent an inch of space to move and groove or leaving it all out on the floor time and time again, Cornelius made his mark and also made sure to put everyone on notice that he was not just with Jerusalem as a passenger but a legitimate starter.

Sure the reds let the visitors back into the game and they actually had a pair of chances in the fourth quarter to take the lead, but when they were unable to get over the hump, Smith, as he has done time and time again, grabbed the bull by the horns and paced his team to the 9-point win to the delight of the over 7,000 delirious fans.

Kenny Williams, who scored 13 of his 18 points in the third quarter thought that his team could have stolen the victory as they came so close to going in front and had twice erased 20+ deficits this season alone, but a turnover and a missed layup ended that comeback dream for the Greeks.

“I think so, I didn’t say it, but in my head we got it to three a couple of times and we have been in that situation before. We had to get over the hump and take the lead and ride that momentum and tonight we didn’t do that.”

Aleksandar Dzikic – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Dzikic and crew will need to be very careful in Athens as AEK will no doubt take the lesson learned from game one into game two and there is no reason to think that they will not give Jerusalem a fight for their lives and not make the same mistakes that they did in the opening ten minutes of this series.

“We came together and brought some fight back, Of course I definitely do feel that we can win,” Williams said not giving up hope with the series heading to their home court.

Jerusalem will need to deal with the fact that Zach Hankins who picked up the BCL’s March Player of the Month award was not on his game on the offensive end and that his teammates can find him with better accuracy around the basket. That may be a tall order so to speak as AEK was able to really stymie the big man in the paint with a number of bodies and height of their own. But as Dzikic said, the fact that they really doubled down on Hankins opened up the perimeter where Smith, Levi Randolph and Khadeen Carrington were allowed to operate.

“Both teams could have played better,” Dzikic noted. “We know it will be super tough in Athens and for them it will be do or die. At the start of the game it was a little bit too easy, an early big lead, they came back and it’s hard to play on the same level for 40 minutes. I believe that some of the guys can play better.”

Akil Mitchell and Zach Hankins – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“The way they changed their defense during the game allowed Speedy to score as they said that they we won’t allow Zach to score. Zach will be a little more factor and we expect there will be more switching and they will use the atmosphere in Athens. We respect them very much.”

Can Jerusalem hold AEK to 55 points once again? That will be a very tough task without a doubt, but as with every underdog, don’t underestimate them Smith explained.

“We understand that they are a very good team and have some great shooters as well. We expected them to make a run at some point and luckily we forced them into two misses and at the end of the day we held them to 55 points and we were in good position to win.”

“We are all playing with a chip on our shoulder. I guess we can be hated, that’s ok. They [The BCL] don’t want to give us any recognition and they haven’t given us recognition this whole season. We’re making our way with what we can.”

Hapoel Jerusalem – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

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