Israel ended its EuroBasket 2015 qualifying campaign on a sour note on Wednesday night, losing 69-61 to Bulgaria in Larnaca, Cyprus, in a meaningless qualifier after already having secured its progress to the European Championships.
Blue-and-white coach Erez Edelstein gave his fringe players plenty of minutes to prove their worth, with starters Omri Casspi and D’or Fischer both already returning home after Sunday’s 83-60 victory over the Netherlands.
Israel booked its 12th consecutive appearance in the European Championships by crushing the Netherlands, ensuring it would finish a qualifying campaign in first place for the first time since 2001.
Despite the fact that the defeat to Bulgaria had absolutely no consequences, Edelstein was still disappointed at seeing his team’s four-game winning streak snapped after Israel had led by as many as 17 points in the second half.
A 27-7 run saw Bulgaria erase the significant deficit and move into a lead it maintained until the final buzzer.
“There was no reason to lose this game,” said Edelstein, who is still awaiting a contract extension.
“We should have cruised after leading by 17 points. We got stuck against their zone defense, but I have no complaints to the players. This was a very difficult campaign. We spent two nights in Israel since starting the campaign on August 10.
I’m very pleased with the way the players reacted both on and off the floor.”
Lior Eliyahu had 16 points and seven rebounds on Wednesday, with Jake Cohen scoring 11 points in his official debut for Israel.
Aleksandar Vezenkov led Bulgaria with 20 points.
Israel ended Group B with a 4-2 record, tied with the winner of Wednesday’s late game between the Netherlands and Montenegro.
However, the blue-and-white already guaranteed on Sunday that it would own a head-tohead advantage over both the Netherlands and Montenegro.
Despite a sloppy start to the game, a Cohen three-pointer gave Israel a 19-16 lead after 10 minutes.
The margin mushroomed to 13 points (41-28) by the break and reached as many as 17 points (47-30) at the start of the second half.
Israel was still ahead by 16 points (52-36) with less than three minutes to play in the third period, but it scored only nine more points until the end of the game, allowing Bulgaria to record its first win of the qualifying campaign.
“It isn’t fun to lose after being up by 17 points,” said Gal Mekel.
“I hate to lose even meaningless games like these.
“Nevertheless, we had an excellent campaign and I think we made real progress as individuals and as a team. There is a lot of talent on this team and we have a lot to look forward to at next summer’s European Championships.”