Israel forward Lior Eliyahu..
(photo credit: FRANS NELISSEN)
Israel got EuroBasket 2015 off to a dream start on Saturday night, beating Russia 76-73 in Montpellier, France thanks to a superb second-half showing.
The blue-and-white entered the European Championships on the back of just one victory from eight warm-up games, displaying little of the promise that saw it win its qualifying group last summer for the first time since 2001.
The national team’s performances in recent editions of the championships also didn’t bode well for this summer’s tournament, with Israel registering just three victories in total in EuroBasket 2013, 2011 and 2009.
However, its chances of progressing past the first round for the first time since 2007 were handed a significant boost with Saturday’s impressive win over Russia.
Russia scored 10 of the first 12 points, but Israel replied with an 8-0 run to tie the score before entering the second period down by three points (21-18). An 18-4 surge saw Russia open a 12-point margin, with the blue-and-white still trailing by double-digits (39-29) at the break. However, Israel tightened its defense and finally hit its first three-pointer of the night in the third frame, holding its opponent to just 10 points in the quarter to take a 50-49 advantage into the final 10 minutes.
Israel scored the first nine points of the fourth period to cap a 26-5 run and open a double-digit gap (59-49), but Russia forced a tight finish. Andrey Zubkov’s free throws cut the deficit to a single point (70-69), but Gal Mekel’s jumper with 23 seconds remaining followed by Lior Eliyahu’s steal from the inbound pass ultimately secured the win.
The blue-and-white will already be back in action on Sunday when it plays Finland in Montpellier before also facing Bosnia- Herzegovina, Poland and France to cap a run of five games in six days.
The top four teams in the group will advance to the knockout rounds.
“This is an important win for the players and Israeli basketball, but we want to see continuity,” said coach Erez Edelstein, who was congratulated over the phone by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“You need to know how to remain humble and ready in tournaments like these and we must show the same determination against Finland. We wanted to open the tournament like this, but if we don’t remain ready both mentally and professionally then we have done nothing.”
Israel’s only NBA player, Omri Casspi, led the way with 21 points and nine rebounds, although he will be hoping to improve on his 9-of-15 performance from the free-throw line, with the entire team scoring just 67.6 percent (23-of-34).
Lior Eliyahu added 16 points, including eight in a row at a crucial stage in the fourth frame. Casspi and Eliyahu combined for 28 points in the second half. Gal Mekel and Raviv Limonad finished with 13 and 12 points, respectively.
Dmitry Khvostov and Andrey Vorontsevich had 15 points each for Russia, which shot just 10-of-30 from two-point range and committed 17 turnovers.
Casspi explained the differences between the first and second halves.
“We made defensive adjustments and knew where we wanted to stop them,” said the Sacramento Kings forward. “However, we have done nothing yet.”
Mekel echoed the coach’s and the captain’s sentiment.
“Even though we were down by 10 points we knew it was possible because they were shooting superbly from threepoint range,” said Mekel. “We gave everything, but as Omri said, this is only the beginning. You need to know how to bounce back from defeats in tournaments, and just as importantly, you need to know how to stay calm after victories. This win will give us a push, but this is only the beginning.”