“Us against the world” Maccabi back on track as Evans plays floor general to perfection down stretch to top Jerusalem

Jan 2, 2022 | Holyland Hoops

You can slice any which way you want, but Maccabi Tel Aviv came into the Israeli Classico against first place Hapoel Jerusalem as an underdog. The Yellow & Blue have played poorly over the past couple of months and are in the midst of an 8 game Euroleague losing streak while also having fallen to Hapoel Tel Aviv last week in the Derby.

So the expectations on the road in the capital city for a victory were very slim among the Maccabi faithful. However, Oz Blayzer put it best following Maccabi’s clinical 83-78 win over Jerusalem, “It’s us against the world.”

Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad has been under media scrutiny like never before the past few weeks as it was rumored that his job was in jeopardy and that perhaps there would also be personnel changes to shake things up and get the club back on track. But the club put out a statement on Thursday night just before midnight that Sfairopoulos would continue with the club and that they would be looking to upgrade the team’s roster as they head into the second half of the season.

מכבי תל אביב הפועל ירו

Ioannis Sfairopoulos – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

“I don’t read what is written in the media and I have been in this business for such a long time that I know what you write,” Sfairopoulos said. “It was very important that they made a public statement and I thanked them and the owner’s support that they believe in me and the team. You can see that we are all together.”

Iftach Ziv who is in his first season with Maccabi Tel Aviv also spoke about the team coming together during the tough stretch, “This was a tough game but we came in ready with a lot of positive energy to come and win. We spoke about this issue over the last few days and it was the energy and togetherness that won us the game.”

Blayzer backed up his coach and reiterated the importance that the team has stayed together during this tough time, “We have a great connection with the coach and all of the guys in the lockerroom. We really needed this win and it was very emotional for all of us. There was a huge desire to win this game and get the year off on the right foot as there is plenty of basketball left to play this season. So many people behind the scenes want the team to succeed and they don’t want to see us in the situation that we had been in.”

Maccabi Tel Aviv – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

One of the reasons that Maccabi is together right now seems to be an addition by subtraction. James Nunnally who it seems has been wiped out of the rotation and game squad was not in attendance despite not being listed as one of the imports for the game, however, the other two Jalen Reynolds and Kam Taylor were.

While Maccabi will look for players to bring in to help bolster the lineups Sfairopoulos can put out on the floor, the individuals will be ones who fit into what the club wants to do and they won’t just bring in a player just for the sake of making an addition.

“We are trying to find players who can help us and ownership gave us the green light to do so. We want to find players who can give us extra solutions and make us a stronger squad,” the bench boss explained.

Obviously beating the most consistent Israeli league team to date in Hapoel Jerusalem is a good way to not only get back into a winning mentality but to also start off the new year and the week exactly how Maccabi would want to. With another league game on Monday at Bnei Herzliya and then a date with Baskonia at home on Thursday, the Yellow & Blue needs to collect wins quickly in order to salvage their European campaign while also proving to the rest of the domestic league that they are the team to beat and are the hunters, not the hunted.

Derrick Williams – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

“We just want to get as many wins as we can,” game MVP Derrick Williams told The Sports Rabbi. “It’s good for the team and our mentality, especially entering a hard week of games so it’s good we started the week with a win.”

Another reason for Maccabi’s success over Jerusalem is because the play of its guards, from Scottie Wilbekin who didn’t take the game upon himself as we have seen so many times as well as Keenan Evans. The first year Yellow & Blue guard played floor general as to how Ioannis Sfairopoulos dreamed he would and was when the Yellow & Blue went down 70-63 with 6:57 left in the game.

Evans entered the fray after Maccabi had called timeout and immediately dished out one of his 8 assists to Derrick Williams who knocked down a key 3-pointer to get his squad on its way. Evans then drew a foul, stole the ball, dished out another 2 helpers, grabbed a board, drove hard to the basket for a layup and one, snatched another rebound and drew yet another foul to finish off Hapoel.

Keenan Evans – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

That was quite the performance as Evans led the troops with his calm demeanor and made sure to control the pace of play in the 27+ minutes on the court while committing zero turnovers. In fact, the team’s four guards, John Dibartolomeo, Iftach Ziv, Wilbekin and Evans coughed up the ball a grand total of one time!

“Keenan is playing really well and for him to be in the first year (at Maccabi) he is playing really well, excellent on both sides of the floor. Evans and Wilbekin both played 27 minutes and had zero turnovers and played a big part of the rhythm and offense,” Sfairopoulos excitedly said.

The one issue that came out of the game is a potential knee issue to big man Ante Zizic who had been smacked around all game long by the Jerusalem players. The center went down in a heap midway through the final frame and will be checked out over the next day to see if it is a serious injury or not.

Maccabi Tel Aviv – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

“Ante is important to us and I hope he is ok,” Maccabi captain John Dibartolomeo who had 14 points and went 4/7 from deep said. “It was an important win. It was tough late in the game so it’s important on a few levels. I hope it gives us positive momentum.”

Over on the Jerusalem side, Yotam Halperin was not down in the dumps after falling to Jerusalem who were without Sean Kilpatrick who was ill as well as newcomer John Egbunu, but with Noam Dovrat who joined the team on Friday morning.

“This was a good basketball game and of course it’s disappointing that we lost at the end,” Halperin, noted. “We were up by 7 points and then we allowed them to get back into the game very quickly. It may have been focus or perhaps fatigue but we will learn from this game. Maccabi is a good team, they are in the Euroleague and are deep. There weren’t any major issues and we were up and had some good possessions, but we knew we needed to make some stops and we couldn’t do that.”

Yotam Halperin – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

As for Dovrat who checked in with 3 points in 10 minutes of play, the young guard who is on the NBA radar, Halperin feels that he will certainly make an impact and provide the team with more depth, quality and balance.

“Noam has lived this league for 3-4 years already and I believe in both the short term and long term. He will get into the team and he will become a real part of this squad going forward.

Reds captain Adam Ariel who played with Dovrat at Rishon Le’Zion also spoke about his addition, “I really like Noam and we were teammates at Rishon and with the National Team. He has great potential and I am happy that he is here. He was solid in this game but it’s way too early to judge how he will do.”

Noam Dovrat – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

With over 9,000 fans in the stands screaming and cheering to their hearts delight from both sides, it was clear that everyone enjoyed the clash which was unique for Halperin who had played for both clubs. But the former star guard put everything into perspective.

“It was an amazing atmosphere with good basketball. I’ve been with this team for the past 8-9 years and we know how great this environment is. But when I saw Alon Bakal’s father (Alon was killed in a terrorist attack five years ago on New Years) in the stands, that is what real life is. We lost the game and we move on.”

Alon Bakal

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