Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv won the Euroleague basketball final 96-86 Sunday night against Real Madrid in Milan in a nail-biting overtime victory.
Maccabi chalked up its first European championship win since back-to-back wins in 2004 and 2005, and its sixth overall.
The Tel Aviv team had not been fancied even to make the final four, and only secured its final place with a last-seconds victory over the mighty CSKA Moscow on Friday.
Maccabi point guard Yogev Ohayon, speaking on Israel Radio seconds after Sunday’s victory was sealed, described the win as “unbelievable… I’m in complete shock.” Fellow player Devin Smith said the fans had been crucial, turning the Milan stadium “into Nokia” — Maccabi’s home Tel Aviv stadium.
Other Maccabi players and coaches called it the greatest victory in the team’s history, eclipsing even its first, legendary 1977 championship, when then captain Tal Brody had proclaimed, “We are on the map.” The delighted surprise at the triumphant culmination of the season contrasted utterly with the team’s shaky start in 2013-14, when it lost numerous domestic games, to the point where there were calls for the sacking of Boston-born coach David Blatt.
Tyrese Rice was Maccabi’s high scorer with 26 points, shooting 75% outside the three point arc and giving Tel Aviv three of its nine three-pointers. He was awarded the MVP award after the game.
Real Madrid set the pace of the game early on, taking and maintaining the lead (16-15 at the end of the first quarter) and holding it for most of the first half. But Maccabi clawed its way back from a 26-16 deficit, and, with a buzzer-beating three-pointer, ended the first half down only 35-33.
The two teams traded a one point lead back and forth over a tense third quarter, but Real Madrid kept the lead with a clutch shot from beyond the arc with less than a minute left. Pulling ahead after a neck-and-neck game for the entire second half, Tel Aviv took a four-point lead with a minute left in the fourth quarter, but Real Madrid patched together a couple free throws and a field goal to tie the game at 73 with seconds remaining.
The fear was that Maccabi, which wasted chances to win the game in regular time, had blown its opportunity. But the Tel Aviv team stepped up a gear in overtime. It broke away from Real, to take a commanding, and ultimately insurmountable lead for the win, scoring a staggering 23 points in those final five minutes.
At least 10,000 Israeli fans traveled to the northern Italian venue to watch the game and cheer on the Israeli league champs. Many had purchased tickets from fans of the previous favorites who had failed to qualify for the final round, FC Barcelona and CSKA Moscow.
At least one wedding proposal took place in the midst of the festivities as thousands of Israeli fans celebrated outside the Milan stadium.
Maccabi had won its place Friday night in the Euroleague Final after a thrilling victory over CSKA Moscow.
Trailing the powerful Russians for the entire semi-final, the Israelis took the lead for the first time only in the final six seconds, and held on for a sensational 68-67 victory, with Rice clinching the winning basket.
Before Sunday’s final, Blatt praised “those who always believed we could do it” and said the team had enjoyed “an unbelievable season.”
In a Channel 2 interview, he said it was accurate to call Maccabi the underdog facing Real Madrid, “but if I’m not mistaken, David was an underdog against Goliath.”