Despite sitting top of Euro- Basket 2015 qualifying Group B at the halfway mark of the campaign, Israel will be anything but complacent ahead of Wednesday’s crunch showdown with Montenegro in Podgorica.
With Israel, the Netherlands and Montenegro all tied at 2-1 after three games, the battle for a top-two finish remains surprisingly open.
Montenegro and Israel were expected to dominate Group B, with the Netherlands considered to be the weakest team in the group entering the qualifiers.
However, after surprising Bulgaria on the road, the Dutch stunned Montenegro 65-60 in Podgorica on Sunday night, seriously complicating 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.
After visiting Groningen and Sofia, 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 (Aug 27).
A victory on Wednesday will put the blue-and-white in pole position to wrap up first place, with Montenegro still reeling from Sunday’s shock loss.
“We showed immaturity and often we rushed into losing the ball,” said Montenegro coach Luka Pavicevic. “I was expecting a tough game, but was also expecting that we would win because we were playing in front of our fans and I believed we would play properly.”
The Dutch only managed four points in the final 14 minutes of the 66-57 defeat to Israel last week. However, Holland’s defensive play has caused real trouble to all the teams in the group.
“We played very well in defense and it is our basketball philosophy, the way we play in every game,” said Dutch coach Toon Van Helfteren. “We managed to reduce Montenegro to 60 points, which is below its average. We might not have great shooters and maybe we did not have the highest level on offense, but when we play well in defense, we can count on victory.”
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 following the 100-84 loss to Israel.
Israel opened a seven-point gap (29-22) by the end of the first period in Sofia 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.
After combining for 13 points and four rebounds in Israel’s first two qualifiers, the nationalized D’or Fischer exploded on Sunday, amassing 12 points and nine rebounds in the first period alone before ending the game with 18 points and 13 rebounds, hitting 9-of-10 fieldgoal attempts.
Fischer was the top statistical performer on the third day of action of EuroBasket qualifying, with the 32-year-old big man registering an efficiency index rating of 33.
“In the first couple of games I wasn’t doing what I was used to doing,” Fischer explained. “I think I was thinking too much, and against Bulgaria I was really comfortable. My teammates got me involved, so a lot of credit should go to them. This was a very important game for us. We needed this win. But this game is over and we need to think of Wednesday. It is time to move on.”