“Scottie is our leader and we will live and die with him” Maccabi comes up short as Wilbekin shoots blanks in crunch time, Hunter goes down and Pascual schools Sfairopoulos

Xavi Pascual has Zenit St. Petersburg playing a different brand of basketball to say the least as he stymied Maccabi Tel Aviv 78-72 at Yad Eliyahu. The win was the Russian club’s first ever Euroleague victory in the Holy Land as the Spaniard proved that he knew exactly what buttons to press in order to come away on top yet once again in Israel’s as Pascual moved his personal record up to 16-3 against Maccabi.

As Zenit has done all season long, Pascual’s team played a slow style of offense with plodding possessions that chewed up the shot clock time after time while lulling the Yellow & Blue into a false sense of security and right to sleep. Coach Pascual called it “beautiful basketball”, Maccabi would probably respond to that with the line, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

An eye injury to Othello Hunter near the end of the first quarter didn’t help matters for Maccabi coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos who had to juggle his lineups which forced him to play Dragan Bender and Angelo Caloiaro as a center in Hunter’s stead. That made matchups even more of a challenge and allowed Alex Poythress to do as he pleased for the majority of the time he was on the floor. Ante Zizic and Arturas Gudaistis matched up to begin the game while after that it should have been Hunter on Poythress but that never materialized as Zenit controlled the boards to the tune of 36-26 with the final frame a total knockout by Pascual’s team 15-7.

Alex Poythress – Photo Credit: Euroleague.net

And if that wasn’t enough, Scottie Wilbekin forced shot after shot down the stretch as the Maccabi guard went an abysmal 0/4 from downtown in the final frame and 2/9 overall in 30 minutes of play in what seemed to be Sfairopoulos’s only option in crunch time. There was never a thought to give one of those balls to one of his teammates as the coach himself said, “Scottie is our leader and we will live and die with him.” However, when 3 of the 4 were contested triples, or taken under duress, perhaps there should have been another possibility drawn up by the bench boss.

Zenit had a two point lead, 37-35 heading into the third quarter, but Pascual’s team rocked Maccabi to sleep with a lullaby and seven quick points to kick off the period which bumped the lead up to 44-35, effectively ending the game very, very quickly. A nine point lead felt like 18 the way Zenit and Coach Pascual managed the game which zapped the energy out of Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s team. Maccabi woke up late in the 4th quarter, but by then the sand ran out of the hourglass.

Ioannis Sfairopoulos – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

“I think that today we started to fight when it was a little bit late,” said Sfairopoulos. “We started the game really good with high energy and intensity. In the first period, I think we did a great job of controlling the game, running the floor and playing good defense and offense, I think we had a lack of energy and intensity in the second and third periods. We should have done a better job in the third period.”

That was the story of the game as Maccabi perhaps played their worst quarter of ball in the third frame in quite some time as they we’re able to do not much of anything.

“Unfortunately, we lacked some energy,” echoed captain John Dibartolomeo. “We dug ourselves a hole early. We were playing catchup. That’s one of the things we try not to do because we want to set the tone from the beginning, which we didn’t do.”

Elijah Bryant – Photo Credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Elijah Bryant also focussed on the lack of energy in Maccabi’s game as being the issue, “We need to keep our energy levels up at all times and focus on our defensive energy no matter what the situation.”

Perhaps if Hunter would have been available to handle Poythress he would have been able to energize his teammates as well and not allow the Kentucky product to do as he pleased. However, with an eye injury that sent him to the hospital, Maccabi had to do without the big man and needed to use makeshift lineups and place an ineffective Bender and Caloiaro at center for way too many minutes.

“Not having Hunter hurt our rotations,” explained the bench boss. “We didn’t have one of our centers and had to play Dragan at the five which isn’t his pure position.”

John DiBartolomeo- Photo Credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv

“Obviously, we missed Othello. He’s a huge part of our game,” exclaimed Dibartolomeo.

“When Othello [Hunter] went out, Coach tried to figure out different lineups,” said Dorsey. “But it’s hard to play with only one big, so it got difficult sometimes figuring it out there. We just couldn’t figure it out tonight and they were getting too many points in the paint.”

Sfairopoulos needed to have another option ready to go in case a big went out again and that plan seemed to be Bender, which unfortunately produced zero points and just 4 boards while Caloiaro wasn’t much better with 2 points and 2 rebounds. Not the production that was going to help Maccabi win the clash.

“Everyone knows Othello is a big part of our team but if a player goes down it’s next man up and everyone can play top to bottom,” said Bryant. But the fact is there is no true replacement for Hunter.

Scottie Wilbekin – Photo Credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Despite scoring 18 points, Wilbekin had a rough go in the last frame scoring 8 points, 4 via free throws and the other four points on a pair of buckets. But as the time ticked away, Wilbekin missed 3-pointer after 3-pointer, once again raising the question of spreading the wealth and not being so predictable with who should be taking the big shots near the end of the game, a topic that was broached a month ago. At that time, Wilbekin would have none of it and he wanted to be the man. A month later, that still hasn’t changed as the Maccabi end of game sequences continue to be predictable as the sunrise and sunset.

There are plenty of other players who could take those shots whether it’s Tyler Dorsey who looked extremely upset after his interview with Euroleague TV or Elijah Bryant who should be getting some of those opportunities which would also allow for coach Sfairopoulos to add some wrinkles into his arsenal.

However, Bryant would not question the coach, “I focus on going out onto the court to do what I’m supposed to do. That is coach’s decision and I’ll do whatever coach wants me to do. We trust him to make those decisions.”

Scottie Wilbekin – Photo Credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv

It’s crystal clear to Sfairopoulos who has to take the play upon themself as the contest heads towards its culmination. “Scottie is our leader and we will live and die with him,” a comment that sounds more like a fan talking than the head coach of a Euroleague team.

Wilbekin won the game last week singlehandedly with a terrific fourth quarter show when he went one on one with Panathinaikos’s Nemanja Nedovic and took the victory for Maccabi. But games like that this season have been few and far between.

Something has to change if the Yellow & Blue want to make a dent in the second round of games because to date Maccabi has died too many deaths this year at Wilbekin’s hands.

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