Israel’s hopes of qualifying for an 11th straight European Championships suffered a hefty blow on Saturday with a shock 88-86 overtime defeat to Estonia in Rishon Lezion.
The national team cruised in the first half, leading by as many as 17 points at one stage against a mediocre opponent.
However, after a nervy finish saw it drop to a defeat to Montenegro in its qualifying opener last week, the blue-and- white was stunningly poor in the second half against Estonia and fell to an 0-2 record in Group A, seriously complicating its situation very early into its 10- game qualifying campaign.
Only the top two teams from the six qualifying groups and the four best third-placed teams will qualify for EuroBasket 2013, joining the already qualified Spain, France, Russia, FYR of Macedonia, Lithuania, Greece, Great Britain and the hosts Slovenia.
Perennial powerhouse Serbia is the firm favorite to win Group A, and following Israel’s loses to Montenegro and Estonia, it already faces a must-win situation on the road against Iceland and Slovakia on Tuesday and Friday, respectively.
Omri Casspi had 23 points and seven rebounds for Israel on Saturday, with Lior Eliyahu contributing 13 points and eight boards.
Yogev Ohayon had 10 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, but also committed seven turnovers of Israel’s 16 in the game, with the blue-and-white shooting a dismal 17 of 31 from the free-throw line.
Kristjan Kangur led Estonia with 21 points and seven rebounds, with Siim-Sander Vene and Sten Sokk scoring 17 and 16 points, respectively.
Israel rode Casspi’s hot hand to start the game, and despite far too many turnovers, a third three-pointer by the Cleveland Cavs forward with three minutes remaining in the first period opened a double-digit gap (18-7).
Casspi soon took his personal total to 11 points and Israel seemed to be cruising when his dunk gave the hosts a 20-7 margin, a cushion the blue-and-white maintained until the end of the quarter (25-12).
The lead already reached 17 points (35-18) following a Guy Pnini triple midway through the second period, and despite committing 10 turnovers in the first half, Israel took a 40- 27 margin into the break after shooting eight of 12 from beyond the arc.
Coach Arik Shivek was forced to call a timeout early in the third frame after Estonia closed to within single digits (43-34), but his team’s play scarcely improved and a Janar Talts three capped a 14-5 run which brought the visitors (53-49) within touching distance.
Israel’s gap was just six points (58-52) with 10 minutes remaining and it took the national team more than two-and-a-half minutes to score its first points of the fourth quarter.
However, fortunately for the hosts, Estonia was equally as poor and it wasn’t long before Israel extended its lead to 11 (63-52) following a Raviv Limonad three.
To the Estonians credit, they never gave up the chase, and despite two more threes by Casspi, the visitors rallied, with a Sokk lay-up cutting the gap to three points (73-70) with 1:16 remaining, silencing the Rishon crowd.
Israel was still in the driving seat, but just like against Montenegro, it lost its head in the closing stages and Gert Dorbek’s triple with 3.4 seconds to go after another offensive board sent the game into overtime.
A Limonad basket ensured Israel still led (84-83) entering the final minute of the overtime, but four consecutive points by Sokk put Estonia in control (87-84), and Israel turned over the ball once more to cap a dismal performance which means its hopes of reaching EuroBasket 2013 are now in real jeopardy.