Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

El Khatib carries Al Riyadi to 76-73 over Mahram

El Khatib carries Al Riyadi to 76-73 over Mahram
by rick olivares

May 30, 2011
Philsports Arena, Pasig City

The road to the FIBA Asia Champions Challenge Cup goes through Iran. Iranian squads have won the last four titles (two by Saba Battery and two by Mahram) of the Champions Cup as well as two of the previous three West Asian Basketball Association (WABA) championships.

The one WABA title that didn’t go their way? That was this year when Al Riyadi Lebanon swept them in two straight in the semifinals before they pipped Al Jalaa in five for the championship trophy.

“We came here to win,” said Fadi El Khatib who made no bones of their mission here in Manila. “We didn’t come here to talk or tell stories. We came here to win.”

And true enough, the Lebanese sent a strong message to all the teams – and Mahram – that they mean business after beating the tournament favorites 76-73 in Group B action after they withstood a furious endgame rally.

In the past two years, Mahram swept the Beirut-based sporting club in all competitions including the Champions Cup. And that only fanned the flames of getting back at their rival.

“A basketball championship “Mahram and Al Riyadi?” said one Iranian supporter. “That’s like Manchester United and Liverpool,” he said with his voice rising in excitement. “It’s a tough rivalry. You know in the Middle East, we all want to do well in anything. And the championship is for bragging rights.”

The basketball seasons in the Middle East end around April every year and teams, exhausted from the long season, reload with reinforcements for the Champions Cup that seals the Treble (domestic, WABA, and FIBA).

This year, Mahram played an extra five matches and flew into Manila not sufficiently rested. Al Riyadi knew that and furthermore, they now had Loren Woods.

Last year, they had CJ Giles, now playing with Duhok Iraq. But they didn’t do squat against Woods. And two years ago, they had Nate Johnson and Chris Charles but they were simply overmatched by the hulking Priest Lauderdale and Jackson Vroman.

“Getting Woods was a crucial part of our strategy to win,” admitted Lebanese coach Fouad Abou Chakra after the match.

The former Arizona Wildcat who once played with Dwyane Wade in Miami and Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, isn’t a player who can pour in a lot of points or can do a 360° corkscrew dunk in the lane like Cheikh Samb, his replacement with Mahram did against Al Riyadi. But he is at 7’1” every bit as imposing and mobile inside the lane.

At tipoff, it was the rapidly improving Jean Abdelnour who held Iran at bay with his outside shooting. The 6’5” swingman who is in his second year with Al Riyadi after leading Lebanese clubs Ghazir and Bluestars in scoring, hit three triples in the first quarter and added a bucket off a slash inside to help his team to a 24-14 lead.

But it wasn’t all Abdelnour. He had plenty of help from former captain Ismail Amhmad who added 7 points while Iran’s Sammad Nikkhah Bahrami who scored eight points including a scoop layup over Woods.

The defending champions got untracked in the second period as Samb’s death defying dunk got Mahram and their supporters jumping up and down. “F*** that was great!” bellowed teammate Jaber Rouzbahani who at 7’4” is the only one that the 7’2” Samb looks up to.

Chris Williams threw down another over Fadi El Khatib to bring down Riyadi’s lead to 24-22.

With Williams and Samb leading the charge with 15 and 11 first half points respectively, Mahram seized the lead 39-37.

“We have to take the game inside,” instructed Chakra at the dugout.

At the resumption of the match, Riyadi retook the lead as Abdelnour picked up from where he left off while getting massive support from Woods and El Khatib whose titanic matchup with Bahrami was symbolic of this game.

The two both stand 6’6” and have represented their countries at the Olympics and the FIBA World Championships. Athletic and the lynchpin of their offense, the two have had this strong rivalry with the Iranian so far getting the better in international competition.

Matched up against one another for the game, El Khatib, who ironically is on loan from Champville after a couple of years with Al Riyadi, put up one over Bahrami as he scored Lebanon’s last eight points. The Iranian never scored after his last bucket – he finished with 18 points to El Khatib’s 25 – at the two minute mark.

Down 68-56 with 7:10 to play, Mahram’s last ditch rally saw them come to within a point 74-73 following a layup by point guard Mahdi Kamrani who had a miserable shooting day (3-13). But El Khatib was able to elicit a foul from Eslamieh Afagh that put him on the stripe for two freebies that hiked the margin to 76-73.

In Mahram’s final play, Woods, who engaged Samb in a block party inside the paint, rejected the Senegalese center’s desperation trey attempt at the buzzer to preserve the lead and more importantly, the win over their archrival.

“We were not able to stop Chris Williams from scoring,” said Chakra after the match as he noted that the American had 32 points but not much help outside of Bahrami. “It was important that we got Samb in foul trouble and that helped.”

“It’s a big win,” said El Khatib whose post-match demeanor did not change. “But we’re not here to talk. We’re here to win a championship.”

Al Riyadi Lebanon 76El Khatib 25, Abdelnour 15, Ismail Ahmed 14, Woods 10, Akl 9, El Turk 3, Kanaan 0.

Mahram Iran 73 Williams 32, Bahrami 18, Samb 9, Kamrani 7, Afagh 5, Kardoost 2, Nezafat 0, Davoudichegani 0, Sahakian 0.

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