THE Maccabi Lakers somehow dug themselves out of an enormous hole deep into extra time to execute the king of comeback victories against UNSW Black in the Wilson Premier League season three decider on Monday night.
At a packed Comets Stadium, City of Sydney Basketball Association president Andrew Lazaris was left momentarily speechless.
After a brief pause at the post-match presentation, he came up with the right words to describe a game that constantly twisted and turned in its closing stages, leaving a big contingent of Maccabi fans on the edge of their seats.
“This was an absolutely phenomenal game,” Lazaris said. “It’s such an honour to have teams like you two in our association – you really set the benchmark high.”
Led by inspirational captain-coach and former Sydney Kings player Ben Knight, Maccabi raced to a 10-point lead after 10 minutes, and went into the main break with a handy 50-42 advantage.
The Navy Blues’ towering forwards Knight, Indiana Faithfull and Anatoly Bose scored from close range at will, Zach Ehrenfeld nailed some big three-pointers and Josh Cohen was accurate from the free throw line.
Speedy pint-sized point guard Marcel Ninio distributed the ball well, and Keyan Kramer and veteran Greg Shapiro provided steel in defence.
But the Lakers hit a points drought early in the second half, and UNSW Black steadily edged their way back to 73-all at the end of regular time, helped by a big 18-point contribution from PJ Isaacson, UNSW’s second highest point scorer.
Then disaster struck Maccabi. Under pressure, errors crept into their game and UNSW lifted, scoring nine of the next 10 points.
Knight used his experience and called a timeout to settle nerves and refocus.
Jaws in the stands then began to drop as Maccabi went on a scoring spree on the back of mammoth three-pointers from Bose and Faithfull, and two must-make field goals.
The Lakers were still one point behind with 45 seconds to go when, after a fast break, Ninio darted towards the basket and nailed a superb lay-up to get his team 85-84 in front.
UNSW Black called a timeout and then made several scoring attempts, but were denied by a desperate Maccabi defence. Their last shot – a long range three-pointer attempt – was blocked in the final second, fittingly by Knight. The noise by Maccabi fans was deafening.
Ninio told The AJN the amazing last gasp win felt even better knowing that the team hadn’t won the competition in several years, and actually got the wooden spoon last season.
“But the way we’ve played consistently well this season – finishing in equal first place with three other teams – made us feel we definitely had a good chance tonight,” Ninio said.
For Kramer, what made a crucial difference in the dying stages were Knight’s calming presence, his players’ response, and the support from Maccabi fans.
“Ben’s so experienced – he told us to remain patient, get our defensive prowess back and then points would come,” Kramer said.
“The crowd really lifted us and got us over the line. To see such a great turnout by our fans on a Monday night means so much, particularly to club juniors like Zach and me – we started playing basketball for Maccabi when we were 12.
“This win is a great boost for the whole club, our Division 1 side also did well – making the semis – and we have some very talented juniors coming through, which Greg [Shapiro] is really helping along as coach of Australia’s junior basketball team for the 2019 Maccabi Pan American Games.”
SUCCESS AT PAN PACIFIC MASTERS GAMES
In other basketball news, the Maccabi Yesterday’s Heroes team – which plays in Sydney City Division 4B – added Victorians Darryl Shostak and Mark Perch to their squad that competed in the Pan Pacific Masters Games in the Gold Coast earlier this month.
Despite many of its players aged between 53 and 60, the team entered the 45-50 men’s category so that Greg Shapiro could be included.
The team ended up winning a silver medal, having won four of its six matches, including winning a semifinal on the buzzer thanks to an Ofir Marco three-pointer.
Other members of the team were Graham Meyerowitz, David Sukiennik, David Kahn, Izhar Ronen and Tomer Baron.
Sydney’s Tom York played for teams in the tournament’s men’s 65+ and 70+ categories, winning a silver medal in the former.
The next Pan Pacific Masters will be held in the Gold Coast in 2020.