Israel’s hopes of reaching an 11th straight European Championships suffered a significant setback on Thursday night following an 81-76 defeat to Montenegro at Nokia Arena.

The national team entered the game on the back of three straight wins after dropping its first two games of the qualifying campaign and held the initiative when it took a seven-point lead with seven minutes remaining.

However, just like in its road encounter in Montenegro, Israel couldn’t finish off the game and dropped to a defeat which seriously complicates its situation in Group A of EuroBasket 2013 qualification.

Israel visits Estonia in its next game on Sunday night and anything but a win will effectively end its chances of qualifying for the European Championships.

Omri Casspi led Israel yet again with 20 points, with Alex Tyus adding 16 points, Lior Eliyahu scoring 14 and Yogev Ohayon contributing 10 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.

However, Israel was outrebounded 38- 26, with the Montenegrins taking 17 offensive boards.

Vladimir Dasic led four Montenegro players in double-figures with 20 points.

The visitors took three offensive boards in their first possession of the night and would dominate the paint.

Five straight Casspi points kept Israel in touch (10-9), but Israel received scarce little on the offensive end from anyone else and found itself five points down (17-12) at the end of the first quarter.

With Israel playing its second game in 48 hours, coach Arik Shivek was forced to use his bench more than he would have liked to, but Montenegro maintained its advantage, with Bojan Dubljevic’s basket with 5:12 to play in the first half giving the visitors a 26-19 margin.

However, Israel would nearly double its point output in the final five minutes of the second quarter to move into the lead.

Five consecutive points by Tyus followed by a steal and lay-up from Yotam Halperin tied the score (26-26) and the arena exploded after two straight Casspi-Tyus alley-oops gave Israel a 32- 28 gap.

Guy Pnini’s three-pointer with 15 seconds to play capped Israel’s 18-3 run (37-29) and the hosts took a six-point cushion into the break (37-31).

A Halperin three increased the gap to eight points (42-34) early in the third quarter, but Montenegro came right back.

Casspi’s fourth foul of the night complicated matters further for Israel, but the hosts had the edge (61-58) with 10 minutes to play after Ohayon beat the buzzer with his three.

Shivek kept Casspi on the bench at the start of the fourth period, but Ohayon made sure Israel remained in control, with his jumper opening a 67-60 lead with just over seven minutes to play.

But the momentum would soon shift in Montenegro’s direction, with Sead Sehovic’s free throws giving Luka Pavicevic’s side a one-point lead (68-67) midway through the fourth frame.

Shivek sent Casspi back onto the floor and his points from the line tied the score at 70-70 with 3:17 remaining.

The Cleveland Cavs’ forward made it seven straight points with a triple that gave Israel a 75-72 margin with 1:56 to go, but the Montenegro players never dropped their head, with Dubljevic three followed by Sehovic’s lay-up putting the visitors back in the lead (77-75).

Tyus had the chance to tie the score from the line at the other end, but he ended his excellent game with two misses and Montenegro clinched the win to put Israel’s qualification hopes in real jeopardy.

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