Maccabi Hunter Haifa went basket-for-basket against defending champs Hapoel Jerusalem — the most powerful offensive team in Israel. However, key Haifa turnovers in overtime helped put Jerusalem over the top, 95-89, despite a herculean performance by Greens’ point guard Gregory Vargas (18 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 6 steals). Oz Blayzer scored a team-high 19 points for Haifa and pulled down 5 rebounds. Three other Haifa players scored in double figures, including a double-double from Alex Chubrevich, who snared a career-high 17 rebounds and chipped in 11 points. Will Graves dropped 15 points on 5-of-17 from the field.
Haifa’s defense recorded 17 steals on the evening, and forced 25 Jerusalem turnovers. Offensively, the Greens struggled from downtown, connecting on only 6-of-25 field goal attempts (24%).
Hapoel Jerusalem was paced by 20 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists from EJ Rowland. Former Haifa great Donta Smith burned the Greens in the fourth quarter with a key dunk to force overtime. Smith finished with 16 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds.
Monday night’s contest at RK Arena was supposed to be billed as a grinding defensive battle, but both teams ran the floor in the first frame, putting on an offensive display. The Greens jumped out to a 4-0 lead, but Smith answered with 5 straight points. Blayzer had a strong first quarter with 6 points, matching Jerusalem’s aggressiveness. Hapoel built a 17-10 edge over Haifa, before Buckner came off the bench and immediately made an impact in the paint, scoring 7 points to bring Haifa within 22-19 after converting on a three-point play. Blayzer made a offensive tip-in at the buzzer to bring the Greens within 3 points of Jerusalem, 26-23, at the end of the first quarter.
The Greens chipped away at Jerusalem’s lead to begin the second quarter, as Haifa knotted the score at 32 on a Buckner feed to Vargas. Jerusalem’s Holman was a pain for the Greens down low as he answered with four straight points to put Jerusalem back up 36-32. Newcomer Leroy Hickerson checked into the game for the first time this season, making a beautiful assist to Chubrevich who finished with an emphatic dunk. He followed up on the next possession with an offensive board and layup, to tie the game at 38. However, the Greens were hit with two technical fouls, which allowed the Reds to score 6 points from the free throw line as they stretched their advantage to 52-42 over Haifa at the end of the first half.
Hapoel came out in the second half and expanded their advantage to a 15-point gap, 59-44. It appeared the game may get out of reach, but Haifa’s defense completely swayed the momentum in the Greens’ favor as they ensued on a 19-5 run. Chubrevich played a major factor in the paint as he drew several fouls to get to the line and the Greens converted on 3 consecutive steals to tighten the game at 64-63 to Jerusalem at the end of the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Jerusalem’s Bar Timor knocked down a trey, but Haifa was able to reclaim a 69-68 lead at the 5:50 mark after a 3-pointer by Graves and a Haifa steal, which led to a Blayzer layup in transition. Haifa and Jerusalem traded leads as each team knocked down key three-pointers. After what looked to be a dagger 3-pointer by Rowland to out Jerusalem up 78-74, Vargas took the team on his shoulder on a drive to the line, drawing the foul. He missed the extra point, but a miscommunication and turnovee by Jerusalem allowed Vargas to capitalize with a 3-pointer to put Haifa up 79-78 at the 2:51 mark. Graves followed with a drive and layup to give Haifa a 81-78 lead. The Haifa defense once again forced a turnover and Chubrevich cleaned up the glass, drawing a foul on an offensive rebound. He made one of two attempts to give Haifa 82-78 edge. A costly mistake by DiBartolomeo, fouling Halperin on a three-point attempt, allowed Jerusalem to close within 82-80. Vargas attempted to ice the game, but his shot was blocked allowing for Smith force overtime with a dunk.
In the overtime, Haifa had it’s chances, but sloppy ball handling and key turnovers doomed the Greens. Jerusalem’s Rafi Menco was the unlikely player who stepped up for his team scoring a dagger three-pointer to go up, and Gaffney followed with a breakaway dunk to put Jerusalem up 92-87. Despite a layup from DiBartolomeo it wasn’t enough as Haifa fell 95-89.