Israel’s EuroBasket 2015 qualifying campaign got off to frustrating start on Sunday, with the blue-and-white dropping to a painful 100-97 overtime defeat to Montenegro in Nicosia, Cyprus.
The blue-and-white closed a six point deficit in the final minute of regulation to force overtime (86-86), but its defensive deficiencies and the lack of home-court advantage ended up being too great to overcome, with Montenegro maintaining a slender margin throughout the extra period.
Israel coach Erez Edelstein won’t have long to mull over the defeat, with the blue-and-white already returning to Israel late Sunday night and departing for the Netherlands on Monday ahead of its second qualifier.
Israel faces the Netherlands on Wednesday before visiting Bulgaria (August 17) and Montenegro (Aug 20). It will then finish the campaign with two more home encounters in Cyprus against the Netherlands (Aug 24) and Bulgaria (Aug 27).
The seven group winners, as well as the six-best second-place finishers, will advance directly to next summer’s tournament.
Israel lost on Sunday despite a superb showing by Omri Casspi, who finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, hitting 9-of-16 field-goal attempts, including two three-pointers, while drawing 13 fouls.
Israel’s second NBA player, Gal Mekel, was also excellent despite foul trouble, contributing 19 points and six assists in 26 minutes.
“We had it in our hands,” said Mekel. “But this is a tournament and we must remember that we have five more games to play. I really believe that we can win in Montenegro, but we first have to beat the Netherlands and Bulgaria.”
Yotam Halperin added 13 points, while Raviv Limonad and Guy Pnini scored 11 and 10 points, respectively.
Despite playing without NBA stars Nikola Pekovic and Nikola Vucevic, as well as the nationalized Tyrese Rice, Montenegro improved to 4-1 against Israel over the past three qualifying campaigns, with Taylor Rochestie leading the side with 17 points and nine assists.
The Israel players wasted no time in implementing Edelstein’s gameplan, with Mekel twice finding Casspi for two easy dunks under the basket before a Pnini lay-up after another fast-break opened an early five-point edge (9-4).
Montenegro quickly tied the score, but Mekel would end the first quarter with five assists and ensure Israel had a three-point edge (20-17) after 10 minutes.
The visitors scored the first five points of the second period to move into the lead before a Nikola Ivanovic three-pointer capped a 10-2 run and opened a fivepoint gap (27-22) two minutes into the frame.
Israel was in danger of losing touch, but it reacted by finally improving its intensity on the defensive end, holding Montenegro to just two points over the next five minutes. That allowed the blue-and-white to go on an 11-2 surge to open a 33-29 advantage.
Israel still had the edge entering the halftime break (40-39) and maintained a slender margin until a three-point play by Rochestie gave Montenegro its first lead of the second half (54-53).
After going scoreless in the first half, Rochestie amassed 10 points within just four third-period minutes, with another three-point play by the nationalized guard helping Montenegro extend its cushion to six points (59-53).
Rochestie capped a sensational period with another basket in the closing seconds, taking his personal tally to 14 points and giving the visitors an eight-point gap (66-58) going into the final 10 minutes.
The hosts looked to be in real trouble when Mekel picked up his fourth foul and was substituted one minute into the fourth quarter before Ivanovic’s basket took the gap to nine points (69-60).
However, Limonad stepped into Mekel’s shoes, with five straight points by the Hapoel Tel Aviv guard bringing Israel within just two points (70-68) with six minutes to play.
Despite playing with four fouls, Casspi kept Israel in the game, first providing an assist for a D’or Fischer dunk which brought the blue-and-white within a single point (75-74) before tying the score at 78-78 with two free throws with 2:17 minutes to play.
However, after hitting just 4-of- 10 three-point attempts in the first three quarters, Montenegro caught fire in the final frame, with a Vladimir Mihailovic triple taking the visitors to 4-of-5 from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter, opening an 86-80 lead with one minute remaining.
Israel continued to fight and four consecutive points from the line by Mekel were followed by a Pnini steal under the basket. The Maccabi Tel Aviv forward then hit two free throws which tied the score at 86-86 with 17.1 seconds to play.
The game went to overtime after Montenegro failed to get off a shot and the extra period would also come down to the final minute.
Israel was down just a single point (95-94) when Pnini missed an open three with 59 seconds left, and despite Casspi’s best efforts, Montenegro held on to send the blue-and-white to a heartbreaking defeat.