Maccabi Elite is headed back to the Final Four! Maccabi clinched its seventh Final Four berth in the last nine seasons on Thursday night with an 88-75 win over AXA FC Barcelona in Game 3 of their best-of-three Quarterfinal Playoffs series at Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv. Will Bynum and David Bluthenthal came off the bench for 21 points apiece – more than the entire starting five – and Yotam Halperin added 17 points and 9 assists for the Israeli champs. Maccabi trailed early, but Bynum and Bluthenthal hit back-to-back three-pointers to open the second period and the Israeli champs never trailed again. Barca cut the gap to 3 in the third quarter, however Terence Morris and Bluthenthal pushed the lead back to double-figures. The game took an unexpected twist as a skirmish developed between Vonteego Cummings and Gianluca Basile. The two were subsequently ejected as were Maccabi’s Derrick Sharp and Esteban Batista for leaving the bench. However Maccabi held on with hot shooting from Bynum and Bluthenthal down the stretch to seal the win. Roger Grimau paced Barcelona with 18 points, Fran Vazquez added 15 points and 13 rebounds and Jaka Lakovic added 13.
Barcelona won the opening tip and immediately took the lead on Vazquez’s baseline jumper. Maccabi was flat on its first possessions, but finally got going with Cummings’s basket-plus-foul in transition. Vazquez put Barca back on top and a Lakovic’s first three-pointer of the series stretched the lead to 3-8. Basile scored over Nikola Vujcic as the visitors’ advantage reached 7, but Vujcic answered with a hook shot. The Maccabi center closed the gap even more with a three-point play, but Barcelona controlled the offensive glass and Denis Marconato kept the visitors ahead. A confident Cummings attacked and kept Maccabi in the picture and Batista, who came in for Vujcic, cut the gap to 15-17. Mario Kasun responded inside, but Halperin penetrated for a basket-plus-foul to close the gap to a single point. Basile missed from downtown in Barca’s last possession to finish the opening period at 18-19.
Maccabi came out more energized for the second period and a Bynum triple put the hosts back on top. Bluthenthal also struck from behind the arc as the lead grew to 24-19. Basile fought his way for 2 inside and Gary Neal added a basket before Batista inside and Bluthenthal from downtown made it 29-23. Roger Grimau hit a triple and, but Bynum in transition and Halperin from the line put the hosts up by 7. Pepe Sanchez drilled a triple only to see 4 straight points from Bynum push Maccabi further ahead. A Bynum steal then led to a Halperin basket-plus-foul, a double-digit lead and a Barcelona timeout. The visitors came up empty-handed from a four-shot possession, but Maccabi failed to take advantage. Basile ended the Barca drought with free throws. Morris and Vazquez traded baskets as Maccabi held a 43-34 halftime advantage.
Cummings fed Batista for a basket in the paint to put Maccabi up by double figures once more, however Grimau came though with a three-point play and another basket in transition to bring the visitors back. A Vazquez jumper ended a 0-7 spurt and brought Barca within 45-41. Bynum drilled a triple and Halperin penetrated for a basket to keep Maccabi in control. Vazquez and Marconato carried Barcelona to within 3, but Bluthenthal drew a fourth foul from Grimau, forcing him to the bench and hurting the visitors at both ends. Bluthenthal then drilled a long jumper and Morris hit a three as the lead bounced up to 55-47. A Barcelona timeout didn’t change matters as a Cummings layup stretched the led to 10. A skirmish between Cummings and Basile developed during a battle for an offensive rebound and the two were subsequently ejected. The Maccabi bench also received a technical and Sharp was ejected for leaving the bench to break up the fight. When all was said and done, Lakovic free throws and then an Alex Acker triple had Barce within 57-53. But just as quickly, Halperin and Bynum made it 63-53 with 10 minutes remaining.
Maccabi looked to end the game early in the fourth quarter. First Bluthenthal hit a jumper and despite a Lakovic triple, Bynum fed Halperin for a fast-break layup and Bluthenthal came up with a steal and a slam to give Maccabi a 13-point lead. However the game took another twist when Batista was ejected with seven minutes remaining. Still the players on the floor did their job and Bluthenthal’s third triple made it 72-56. Ersan Ilyasova scored his first basket for Barca, but another Bluthenthal three-pointer gave Maccabi a 17-point advantage. Grimau battled on with a three-point play and Lakovic added a basket as Maccabi took a timeout to settle down. The result was a Morris three that made it a 15-point game with less than four minutes remaining. Vazquez and Lakovic continued to try and revive Barcelona and a Grimau triple made it 79-70 with two minutes remaining. Bynum calmly made free throws and on the next trip downcourt threw down a high-flying slam to the delight of the fans, who began celebrating. Still Sanchez hit from downtown, but it was too little, too late and a Bluthenthal triple wrapped up any doubts and secured Maccabi a spot at the Final Four.
Thursday, April 10, 2008