The Israel national team is brimming with confidence ahead of Sunday’s qualifier against the Netherlands in Nicosia, Cyprus, knowing it is within a win of progressing to a 12th consecutive European Championships.
After claiming three straight victories by an average margin of 13.3 points per game over its Group B opponents, the blue-and-white can clinch first place and automatic qualification for EuroBasket 2015 with another victory over the Dutch on Sunday.
Israel got the campaign off to a slow start, losing its opener to Montenegro and struggling for long periods against the Netherlands in Groningen. However, it went on to beat Holland 66-57 after holding the Dutch to four points in the final 14 minutes of the game and hasn’t looked back since. The national team comfortably defeated Bulgaria 100-84 on the road four days later before recording its most impressive showing of the campaign to date in an 80-65 triumph at Montenegro.
“Everyone played great against Montenegro,” said Omri Casspi, who is averaging a team-high 18.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. “We did what we had to do and now we need to win on Sunday and progress to the European Championships.”
Israel and the Netherlands are currently tied atop of the group with a 3-1 record, with the blueand- white sitting in first place thanks to a superior basket differential (37 to 14). An Israel triumph on Sunday will guarantee the team wins the group as even should Erez Edelstein’s men lose their final qualifier against rock-bottom Bulgaria in Cyprus on Wednesday, they will still own a 4-2 record and a head-tohead advantage over both Montenegro and the Netherlands (which won’t be able to finish any better than 4-2).
Even should the national team lose to the Netherlands, it will very likely finish in the top two assuming it goes on to beat Bulgaria.
The seven group winners, as well as the six-best second-place finishers, will advance directly to next summer’s tournament.
In order to determine the best second-place finishers, the results of the games against the fourth placed team (which in Group B’s case is set to be Bulgaria) will be removed from the ranking process.
The Netherlands was considered to be the weakest team in the group ahead of the campaign, but it has managed to dictate its slow and defensive style in all four of its qualifiers so far, allowing no more than 66 points. Toon Van Helfteren’s side has conceded just 59.0 points per game, second best among the 20 teams in the qualifiers.
“Giving up forty points in one half is way too much,” Van Helfteren said after last Wednesday’s 66-57 victory over Bulgaria.
“At halftime I asked the players to do better. Our defense in the second half was superb.
That’s how we win games, with defense. Offensively we are too dependent on a few players.
When we started practicing in July we had six or seven players and we have made massive progress. I am very proud of these players.”
Casspi is adamant that Israel will not take the Dutch lightly.
“They are a very defensive and disciplined team,” said the Sacramento Kings forward. “We hope we can play our game, run and score a lot.
That will make our lives a lot easier.”
While NBA players Casspi and Gal Mekel are leading Israel as expected, Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Guy Pnini has been the team’s X-factor. Pnini is the only player on the roster to score in double figures in each of the qualifiers, averaging 12.5 points and 3.3 assists per game.
“We are on the up and I hope we can continue this way,” said Pnini.
“We want to make sure we qualify for the European Championships by already winning our group on Sunday.”