Israel strengthened its hold on first place in EuroBasket 2015 qualifying Group B on Wednesday night, taking a significant step towards securing its progress to next summer's tournament with an 80-65 victory over Montenegro in Podgorica.
A 7-0 run to end the first half put the blue-and-white in control (37-32) and Israel was ahead by 10 points (61-51) with 10 minutes to play. The national team kept Montenegro at bay throughout the fourth quarter to secure a superb victory after losing its previous four games to Montenegro.
Gal Mekel was sensational for the blue-and-white, finishing with a triple-double of 14 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. Omri Casspi added 17 points, with Guy Pnini and D'or Fischer finishing with 12 points each for Israel, which hit 32-of-58 field-goal attempts.
Israel is currently tied with the Netherlands, which beat Bulgaria 66-57 on Wednesday, at 3-1, but the blue-and-white heads the group thanks to a superior basket differential.
Israel hosts the Dutch in Nicosia, Cyprus on Sunday knowing a win will all but secure its place in the championships for a 12th straight time ahead of the national team's final qualifier against Bulgaria in Larnaca next Wednesday.
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 start of Wednesday's game was a continuation of the first meeting between the teams earlier this month won by Montenegro, with both sides seemingly scoring at will.
There were no more than three points separating Israel and Montenegro throughout the first period and it only seemed right that the tight quarter should end tied at 20-20 after Lior Eliyahu beat the buzzer with his lay-up.
Israel finished the period on 9-of-15 from the field, but once more failed to convince on defense, allowing the hosts to remain close by.
However, the blue-and-white displayed a much-improved defensive game in the second period, holding Montenegro to just 12 points throughout the frame.
The hosts failed to score at all in the final three minutes of the first half, with Israel going on a 7-0 run, capped by a Raviv Limonad three-pointer, to take a five-point margin (37-32) into the break.
Mekel provided the assist for Limonad's basket, his sixth of the first half to go with seven points and six rebounds.
Casspi had just four points in 12 first half minutes, but Mekel made sure to get him involved at the start of the second half, with the Sacramento Kings forward scoring from an assist from the Dallas Mavericks guard to begin the third quarter.
Israel built on its momentum and a three-point play by Guy Pnini followed by another Casspi basket capped a 9-2 surge which opened a 12-point gap (46-34).
Montenegro ultimately found its range on offense, but Israel still made sure it took a double-digit cushion into the final period.
Casspi ended the third quarter with nine points, while Mekel's ninth assist of the game resulted in an Elishay Kadir basket, which opened a 61-48 lead.
Suad Sehovic's three-pointer to beat the third-quarter buzzer kept Montenegro within 10 points (61-51), but Israel wouldn't allow the hosts to come too close.
Even a lengthy delay to start the fourth quarter due to problems with the scoreboard couldn't derail Israel, which thanks to Mekel and Casspi always maintained a comfortable cushion.
Montenegro never really threatened to mount a comeback and the blue-and-white recorded a crucial win which leaves it within touching distance of clinching a place in the European Championships.
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