Israel kick-started its Euro- Basket 2015 qualifying campaign on Wednesday night, beating the Netherlands 66-57 in Groningen thanks to a strong defensive display in the second half.

After dropping to an overtime defeat to Montenegro on Sunday, Israel knew that another loss on Wednesday would seriously jeopardize its chances of reaching the European Championships for a 12th consecutive time.

The Netherlands hasn’t qualified for the European Championships since 1989, but it frustrated Israel for the first 26 minutes in Groningen, with the score tied at 53-53 with four minutes to play in the third quarter.

However, the hosts amazingly scored just four more points until the final buzzer, a combination of Israel’s improved defensive play and the Dutch’s desperately poor offensive showing.

While Montenegro remains the favorite to win qualifying Group B, Israel took a big step towards at least finishing in the runners-up position on Wednesday.

The seven group winners, as well as the six-best second- place finishers, will advance directly to next summer’s European Championships.

Israel will travel next to Bulgaria, which it will face on Sunday, before visiting Montenegro next Wednesday. The blueand- white will then return to Israel for a short stay before flying to Cyprus ahead of its final two home games in Nicosia against the Netherlands (Aug 24) and Bulgaria (Aug 27).

After completely relying on its NBA players, Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel, in the defeat to Montenegro, Guy Pnini and Lior Eliyahu stepped up on Wednesday to ensure Israel left with the win.

Pnini led the national team with 16 points, including four three-pointers, while Eliyahu finished with 13 points. Casspi added nine points and eight rebounds while Mekel contributed eight points and five assists for the blue-and-white, which triumphed despite committing 17 turnovers and being outrebounded 41-32, with the Dutch grabbing 14 offensive boards.

Roeland Schaftenaar had 12 points for the Netherlands, which beat Bulgaria in its first qualifier.

“We expected a tough game because the Netherlands is well-coached and defends well,” said Israel coach Erez Edelstein. “We managed to score 45 points in the first half, but instead of pulling ahead we allowed them back into the game. However, we held them to just four points in the fourth quarter and claimed a difficult win. We need to settle down now because we must beat Bulgaria in Sofia.”

Israel looked sharp on the offensive end to start the game, with two three pointers by Pnini followed by another triple from Yotam Halperin giving the blue-and-white an early five-point gap (9-4).

However, the Netherlands never lost touch and held a one-point lead (22-21) after 10 minutes. Israel scored the first nine points of the second period to move into the driving seat, with a three-point play by Yaniv Green opening a double-digit margin (37-27) for the first time. But the blueand- white couldn’t kill off the game, with the hosts closing to within just four points at the break (45-41).

Israel looked lost when Worthy De Jong’s basket midway through the third quarter tied the score at 53-53. However, the visitors tightened their defense and wouldn’t allow the Dutch to score again in the period.

Pnini’s three to finish the frame gave Israel a five-point edge (58-53) entering the final 10 minutes, and despite a far from fluid offensive game, the blueand- white never lost control.

Israel scored just eight points in the entire fourth quarter, but the Netherlands managed a mere four, allowing Edelstein’s men to wrap up a crucial victory.

“This wasn’t a game of the highest level, but both teams really wanted to win and this was a really tough battle,” said Pnini. “We found a way to win and I’m happy we showed our character.”

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