Israel will have one foot in next summer’s EuroBasket tournament should it beat Montenegro in Podgorica on Wednesday night, claims veteran national team guard Yotam Halperin.
The blue-and-white will be targeting its third straight win and will hope to avenge its loss to Montenegro in Nicosia, Cyprus, in its qualifying opener.
Erez Edelstein’s men erased a sixpoint deficit in the final minute of regulation to force overtime in Nicosia, but ultimately dropped to a 100-97 defeat, Israel’s fourth consecutive loss to Montenegro.
Montenegro looked to be well on course to winning Group B after beating Israel on the road.
However, it only barely overcame Bulgaria 70-64 in overtime before dropping to a shock 65-60 loss to the Netherlands on Sunday.
Israel, the Netherlands and Montenegro are currently all tied at 2-1, with the blue-and-white heading the group thanks to a superior basket differential.
With home games against the Netherlands and Bulgaria to finish the campaign coming up next week, a win on Wednesday will leave Israel perfectly placed to win the group and automatically book its place at the European Championships.
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 fourthplace team, in each of the groups of four teams, will be removed from the ranking process.
“We have some bad memories from Podgorica,” said Halperin, with Israel losing in its two previous visits to Montenegro in 2012 and 2010.
“Unfortunately, this is a team which we have failed to beat several times. The games were always close but we couldn’t win. The fact Holland won here complicates the group and turns this game from very important to very, very important.”
Despite the blue-and-white’s poor track record against Montenegro, Halperin is confident the national team can prevail on Wednesday.
“We have beaten better teams in the past,” Halperin claimed. “We will have one foot in the European Championships if we win on Wednesday.”
After completing its 10-day road trip in Podgorica, the Israel squad will return home for a short stay before flying to Cyprus to prepare for Sunday’s game against the Netherlands ahead of its final group encounter versus Bulgaria next Wednesday.
“This hasn’t been an easy month with everything that has been going on with the war,” said Halperin. “But we are all happy to be here and have a joint target – to qualify for the European Championships.”
Despite superb showings by NBA players Omri Casspi (28 points, 10 rebounds and five assists) and Gal Mekel (19 points and six assists), Israel couldn’t eke out a win in its group opener against Montenegro.
A more balanced display by the roster in the games against the Netherlands and Bulgaria resulted in wins, with Israel currently leading the 20 teams in qualifying with 87.7 points per game.
Six players are averaging over 9.0 points per game, with Edelstein building the team around a seven- man rotation. Casspi, Mekel, Guy Pnini, D’or Fischer, Halperin, Raviv Limonad and Lior Eliyahu all average between 21 and 32 minutes per game and have accounted for all but 14 of Israel’s points in its first three qualifiers.
Nevertheless, it is the team’s two NBA players, Casspi (18.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Mekel (14.3 ppg, 6.0 apg), who lead the show and will be counted upon to lift the blue-and-white to victory on Wednesday.
“We did what we had to against Bulgaria and we quickly moved on,” said Casspi. “When we move the ball the way we did in Sofia we are very hard to stop and we want to build on that in Podgorica. It is about time we defeat Montenegro.”