Something of a historic night for Maccabi FOX on Wednesday won't be won't be forgotten anytime soon in Tel Aviv. It started with Maccabi being limited to less than half of its sellout crowd of 10,000 fans by coronavirus measures put in place by the Israeli government just hours beforehand.
But as Othello Hunter pointed out afterward, "We didn't have all our fans, but the fans who were here, they brought it tonight."
All of what they brought and every single stat the players could collect – plus, some great defensive stops that didn't make the scorebook – were all needed to turn away league leader Anadolu Efes Istanbul 77-75 after the top MVP candidate so far, Shane Larkin, missed a buzzer-beating three-point try that would have taken the victory back to Turkey.
Instead, Maccabi got a huge monkey off its back by qualifying for its first playoffs appearance since 2015, the club's longest post-season drought this century. Even better, Maccabi had to truly earn it with big efforts from the entire team.
Early on, it was forward Yovel Zoosman and Quincy Acy setting the pace on defense in a 19-4 start that got the half-crowd going strong. When Efes reacted swiftly, Scottie Wilbekin and Aaron Jackson kept the visitors from fully taking over, as they had in compiling a EuroLeague-record 12 consecutive road wins. Still, down by double digits early in the second half, Maccabi had to rally, and Hunter's incredible 8 offensive rebounds were key to making that happen. Wilbekin would tie it 61-61 midway through the fourth quarter, but Efes followed Rodrigue Beaubois on a 0-8 run that would have flattened most opponents. That's when 19-year-old Deni Avdija appeared to spark Maccabi with a pair of tough inside baskets. Next, and most crucially, Angelo Caloiaro came out of nowhere to hit copycat three-pointers in the span of 23 seconds to tie 71-71. But even when Maccabi went ahead 75-71 on Hunter 's second basket in a row, with 43 seconds left, Vasilije Micic needed all of 3 seconds to erase it with a four-point play. Hunter's seventh offensive rebound turned out to be the game-winning play, setting up 2 late free throws by Wilbekin before Larkin missed at the buzzer.
It was Maccabi's fifth consecutive victory at a crucial juncture of the season, but despite its historical significance, head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos was not ready to call it the team's best.
"I cannot say that this is the biggest win," he said afterward. "We made so many important wins, big wins, home and away. For sure when you play against the best team, with only three losses, it's a very important win, but I cannot put this one over some others."
What Coach Sfairopoulos can take stock in, however, is just how many of his players contributed in key ways to stopping the league leader and hottest road team the EuroLeague has ever seen. It was no small feat, and it showed to everyone what a winning formula for the playoffs looks like. Few of Maccabi's players have been there before, after all, but on Wednesday they played like they know what it takes.