(photo credit: FIBA EUROPE Web site)
Israel got its EuroBasket 2011 qualifying campaign off to a dream start on Monday night, beating Italy 79-71 in Bari.
Italy was considered to be the national team’s toughest opponent ahead of the start of qualifying, but after a slow start on Monday, Israel led by double digits for most of the night and clinched a crucial win.
The blue-and-white will play all of their eight qualifiers throughout the coming month and will host Latvia on Sunday in its next game.
Israel also faces Finland and Montenegro in Group A, with the winners of the three qualifying groups and the two best second place teams to qualify automatically for next summer’s European Championships in Lithuania.
Yotam Halperin led Israel with 16 points and five rebounds, with Omri Casspi having a quiet night in his first game for Israel as an NBA player, scoring nine points.
Yuval Naimi and David Bluthenthal added 10 points each, and Israel was helped by the fact Italy hit just five of 30 attempts from beyond the arc.
Andrea Bargnani and Marco Belinelli had 20 points each for Italy.
Israel scored the first three points of the night, but looked lost at the start of the game without a playmaker to set the tempo or a center to fight under the baskets, and a Bargnani dunk gave the hosts a 15-5 lead.
Israel coach Arik Shivek realized his starting five wasn’t getting the job done, and the game swung in his favor after he brought Yogev Ohayon and Yaniv Green off the bench.
Ohayon took control of the ball handling and Green provided much-needed help with the rebounding and Naimi’s jumper to end the first period gave Israel a 20-19 lead and completed the comeback.
The momentum remained on Israel’s side at the beginning of the second quarter and it wasn’t long before Shivek’s men opened a double-digit margin.
A Casspi three, his only points of the first half, gave the national team a 33-21 advantage and Israel took a 12-point gap (45-33) into the interval after leading by more than 16 at one stage.
The Italians opened the second half with four straight points to close within eight, but Israel regained its double-digit lead soon enough and a Naimi basket midway through the third period extended the gap to 57-43.
Just when the visitors seemed to be in complete control, Italy fought
its way back into the encounter. With two minutes remaining in the
period, the hosts were down by a mere five points (60-55).
However, Israel scored the final seven points of the quarter and looked comfortable enough with 10 minutes remaining (67-55).
The Italians never stopped chasing and Luca Vitali’s three cut the margin to only eight points (69-61).
The hosts would come no closer, however, and Israel held on for a significant victory.