Israel will face Montenegro in a direct showdown for first place in EuroBasket Group B on Wednesday after taking a significant step towards securing a top-two finish with a convincing 100-84 victory over Bulgaria in Sofia on Sunday.
After a poor defensive display saw it drop to an overtime defeat to Montenegro and after only barely eking out a victory against the weak Netherlands in Groningen, the blue-and-white finally showed what it is capable of by steamrolling Bulgaria.
Bulgaria was considered to be the national team’s main rival for a top-two finish ahead of the campaign, but its hopes of reaching the European Championships effectively ended on Sunday after it fell to 0-3.
Israel opened a seven-point gap (29-22) by the end of the first period and never lost control.
The hosts were within striking distance at the break (46- 38), but a 19-3 run to start the second half opened a 24-point margin (65-41) which Bulgaria had no chance of erasing.
Montenegro, which hosted the Netherlands late Sunday, welcomes Israel to Podgorica on Wednesday in a battle between the two best teams in the group.
The seven group winners, as well as the six-best second-place finishers, will advance directly to next summer’s European Championships. In order to determine the best second-place finishers, the results of the games against the fourth placed team, in each of the groups of four teams, will be removed from the ranking process.
The blue-and-white will complete its 10-day road trip in Montenegro before returning to Israel for a short stay and then flying to Cyprus ahead of its final two home games in Nicosia against the Netherlands (August 24) and Bulgaria (August 27).
Omri Casspi led six Israel players in double figures with 19 points in Sofia. D’or Fischer finished with 18 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks, hitting 9-of-10 field-goal attempts. Gal Mekel added 16 points and seven assists, with Raviv Limonad, Guy Pnini and Yotam Halperin scoring 15, 12 and 11 points, respectively, for Israel, which shot 71.2 percent (37-of-52) from two-point range.
Aleksandar Vezenkov had 18 points for Bulgaria.
“There are no easy games in basketball,” said Israel coach Erez Edelstein. “If you don’t take your opponent seriously you may find yourself surprised. We don’t go wild when we win and we don’t go wild when we don’t play so well. Our goal is to reach the European Championships.
This is a short six-game tournament and every game is important.
I’m very happy we did a good job tonight.”
Despite averaging 58.5 points in its first two qualifiers, Bulgaria had little trouble scoring in the early stages, with the score tied at 10-10 after three minutes.
However, Israel’s improved intensity on defense saw it hold the hosts to three points in the final three minutes of the quarter and take a seven-point lead (29-22) into the second period.
The visitors were ahead by as many as 13 points in the second quarter (40-27), but Bulgaria closed to within eight points at the break (46-38). However, the blue-and-white crushed Bulgaria’s resistance in the third period, reaching a 20-point cushion (61- 41) after just three-and-a-half minutes and never looking back.
“I think the key for us was to begin the second half with a lot of energy,” said Mekel. “We were really scared of this game, but we finished it in the third quarter.
“This was a very important win and now we will turn our focus to the war against Montenegro on Wednesday,” he added. “The defeat to Montenegro in Cyprus is a painful memory, but we believe we can beat them.”