Just as the second half got underway in Maccabi Tel Aviv’s win over Hapoel Haifa I sent a WhatsApp message to a fellow journalist that said, “The refs have to help Maccabi…I can’t believe I have to say it.” Because I didn’t see any other way they were going to win.
Elad Hasin’s team was so massively outplaying Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s Euroleague squad it was scary. If Maccabi wasn’t going to get a friendly whistle sooner rather than later they would have added another defeat to their short list the past few weeks which included losses to Hapoel Beer Sheva, Hapoel Gilboa Galil and a close call at Maccabi Haifa.
That was the Yellow & Blue’s situation as they went into the 3rd quarter down 54-39. Keenan Evans who will find himself on a Euroleague team next year carved up the hosts to the tune of 19 points and dod as he pleased against a Maccabi defense that looked like Swiss Cheese.
However, it didn’t take long for the tide to begin to turn.
Elijah Bryant who is rumored to be heading to the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks imminently, whined over a non-foul call and very quickly the zebras began to call foul after foul sending a parade of Maccabi players to the charity stripe. 27 free throws to be exact to 9 for Haifa as the hosts were able to close the gap and take the win thanks to a stellar effort from Scottie Wilbekin holding the visitors to just 22 points over the final two periods.
“I have to credit my guys, they battled like men,” Haifa coach Elad Hasin said in the postgame press conference. “I’m less satisfied with the officiating and I never in my life saw seven minutes where there was no foul. It’s hard to play like that.”
Let’s say that Hasin, who was once an assistant coach together with Sfairopoulos under Pini Gershon at Olympiacos, wasn’t impressed by the referees in the second half, a half that saw his star Evans score only 2 measly points.
“They defended him tough and didn’t call a foul,” Hasin said. “He leads the efficiency rating in the league and he always keeps his mouth shut. On one side of the floor there is an offensive foul and at the other end there wasn’t. There was a momentum that the refs went with.”
Evans is having a spectacular season averaging 18.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 6.6 assists and has an efficiency rating of 25.7 which should earn him a nice payday for the upcoming campaign as the Texas Tech product will be on the top of many team’s wanted lists this summer.
Big man Egor Nestrenko who has been the recipient of some of Evans assists this season knows what type of floor general Haifa has on the court, “It’s great to play with him and he gives his maximum. He looks for his teammates and I’m happy that he is one of the best players this season in the league. I hope he can continue his fine play.
Sfairopoulos who usually doesn’t comment on the officiating surprised and actually did so, praising the officials, “I respect coach Elad and we are good friends. I also respect the Israeli referees who are also in European competition and I think the level is very high.”
Maccabi and Sfairopolus have to be concerned as to how the club started the game off and only came alive in the second half. Should the Yellow & Blue continue playing this way it will be very tough to win the league championship with teams like Hapoel Eilat, Hapoel Gilboa Galil and Hapoel Holon not only breathing right down their necks but also having beaten Maccabi this season. They already have the confidence that they can win and that’s something Maccabi needs to change and change in a hurry.
“We didn’t start the game well as we wanted and we didn’t follow the plan. We allowed our opponent to score 54 points with great percentages and our defense was very soft. This made our life more difficult,” Sfairopoulos stated.
“The players played defense and held Haifa to 22 points in 20 minutes less than in the first quarter alone. Everyone has to come ready to follow the plan. I’m happy that we won and saw effort. It’s not easy to come back from 15 points down on your home court.”
All true, but Maccabi has to make sure they don’t find themselves in a situation where they are in the hole especially in a playoff game. They’ve been beaten before by Hapoel Eilat in a quarterfinal series and this version is even better than the one that won two at Yad Eliyahu in the 2014/15 season to knock the Yellow & Blue out of the postseason.
“When you get hit in the mouth you have to respond and we needed that punch in the face to wake up and reach our abilities,” TJ Cline explained. “Basketball is a game of runs and we have to play the way we did in the second half from the start. We let them get too comfortable in the first half and when we came in at halftime coach lit a fire under us and we responded really well.”
“I warned the guys that Maccabi would be more aggressive in the second half,” Hasin commented. “For one of the teams not one foul and for us, five.”
Cline didn’t looked at the foul calls as being the key to victory but rather focused on the defense. However, he did leave the door open just a crack, “I’m going to say that it’s our hard defense. We listen to the whistle and it’s a fair point but I’m not going to go there. We can control what we can control. I can’t talk about the officials and I don’t want to get into hot water.”
If Maccabi want to walk away with the league championship they’ll need that effort on defense for a full 40 minutes as they won’t be able to count on the referees or Scottie Wilbekin to bail them out if they are down again by 15 points at halftime. Maccabi needs a complete team effort with all hands on deck.
Next up for Maccabi Tel Aviv is Hapoel Eilat on Sunday at Yad Eliyahu in a clash of titans as the next Euroleague prospect in Josh Nebo will look to show his wares just as Keenan Evans did for Hapoel Haifa. Hopefully, the officials won’t be a factor in this 5pm matchup of titans.