Lions battle but lose out to Hapoel Tel Aviv

London Lions 93-95 Hapoel Tel Aviv (30-27, 28-21, 17-17, 18-30)(Lions: Dekker; 29, Taylor; 19, Zubcic; 19 – Hapoel: McRae; 24, Brown; 18, Onuaku; 10)

London Lions suffered Wembley heartbreak as they lost 95-93 to Israeli giants Hapoel Tel Aviv in a EuroCup, Group B clash on Wednesday night. The Lions dropped to 4-6 in the group as they came agonizingly close against the highly experienced Tel Aviv side, who were cheered on by a raucous traveling crowd.

However, former Washington Wizards star Jordan McRae had other ideas. The guard was unstoppable – scoring 36 points on 81% shooting from inside the paint. McRae said: “It was a total team effort – we fought hard, never gave up and kept playing hard.”

The Lions, still playing without the injured Ovie Soko, looked like the better team through most of the game. But big plays down the stretch from Onuaku and especially McRae were the difference.

The Lions got excellent production from Sam Dekker with a season-high 29 points and Jordan Taylor with 19 points and nine assists. London started very strong with a 7-0 run – looking confident playing at Wembley for the second time in the EuroCup.

Luke Nelson scores on a drive to open the proceedings – before Kosta Koufos backed his man down and spun to the basket for two. McRae was the first Hapoel player to get on the scoreboard – knocking down his first three-pointer before Dekker answered with four quick points of his own. Tomislav Zubcic and Taylor splashed home a pair of three-pointers, respectively – pushing the Lions’ lead to 11 points with only five minutes played.

Tel-Aviv, a talented and experienced side in their own right, battled back into the game in the second quarter through six points from Mcrae. However, the Lions used their sizable frontline to keep themselves ahead. Back-to-back three-pointers from Zubcic gave him 13 points in the first half.

In the third period, the teams traded baskets for a few minutes, with Tel Aviv opting for a smaller lineup. Luke Nelson came up with the game’s highlight play – falling out of bounds, he managed to thread a bounce pass to Koufos inside for the dunk.

However, Tel Aviv, with their fans chanting and drumming throughout the game, kept finding openings – McRae and Onuaku being the primary beneficiaries.

Josh Sharma was a bright spark off the bench amid the Lions’ 9-2 run, as the twin towers lineup of Sharma and Koufos proved difficult for Hapoel to adjust to. With Dekker pushing in transition, he found Taylor in the corner for the triple – as he extended the lead to 12 points. In the fourth quarter, the Lions came straight out the gate again – with Taylor splashing another three.

Yet McRae answered again as he did all evening, with his pull-up mid-range jump shot – cutting the lead to five points. McRae scored eight straight points for the visiting team in the final five minutes of action. He also shot 9 of 11 from the free throw line. With three minutes remaining, Hapoel took the lead — capping off a 20-2 run in 5 minutes of fourth-quarter play.

With a minute left and the game hanging in the balance, McRae pulled up in the lane and converted, using the screen expertly. Running it back with Taylor pulling the strings, he found Dekker with a little room for the top-of-the-key three-pointer. However, the Lions could not stop Onuaku from hitting the game’s final shot and giving his team victory. The Lions will be disappointed at blowing the lead but will be encouraged by their players’ performances despite injuries and foul trouble. London will get a chance to respond in EuroCup action next against Italian side Aquila Basket Trento on Wednesday, 18 January.

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