Israel can already take a significant step towards securing a toptwo finish in EuroBasket qualifying Group B when it visits Bulgaria in Sofia on Sunday night.
After rebounding from the dejecting overtime defeat to Montenegro with a hard-fought road victory over the Netherlands, Israel can all but end Bulgaria’s challenge with a win in Sofia.
Bulgaria was considered to be the blue-and-white’s main rival for a top-two finish ahead of the campaign, but its hopes of reaching the European Championships will be as good as over should it fall to 0-3 on Sunday.
The Bulgarians suffered a shock 62-53 defeat at home to the Netherlands in its group opener before dropping to a 70-64 loss at Montenegro last Wednesday.
Bulgaria’s poor offensive play coupled with its desperate rebounding has left it facing a must-win situation against Israel.
The blue-and-white, which is aiming to reach the European Championships for a 12th consecutive time, was frustrated by the Netherlands for the first 26 minutes in Groningen, with the score tied at 53-53 with four minutes to play in the third quarter.
However, Israel amazingly held the hosts to just four more points until the final buzzer on the way to a 66-57 win last Wednesday, thanks to a combination of the blue-and-white’s improved defensive play and the Dutch’s disastrous offensive showing.
While Montenegro, which hosts the Netherlands on Sunday, remains the favorite to win Group B, Israel took an important step in Groningen towards at least finishing in the runners-up position.
The seven group winners, as well as the six-best second-place finishers, will advance directly to next summer’s European Championships.
A victory over Bulgaria will allow Israel to fully focus on Wednesday’s showdown against Montenegro in Podgorica, which will likely decide first place in Group B.
After completing its 10-day road trip in Montenegro, the national team will return to Israel for a short stay before flying to Cyprus ahead of its final two home games in Nicosia against the Netherlands (August 24) and Bulgaria (August 27).
First things first, however, with Israel knowing a slip-up against Bulgaria could end up costing it dearly.
Despite the confidence-boosting win over the Netherlands, coach Erez Edelstein told his players that the form they displayed in Groningen will not be sufficient to overcome Bulgaria.
He warned his roster that Bulgaria will be playing like a wounded animal as this is its final chance to remain alive.
Edelstein also told his players not to pay too much notice to the Bulgarians defeat to the Netherlands as they had underestimated their rival in the group opener before adding three new players ahead of the game against Montenegro, which according to the Israel coach they should have really won.
“We played well after a very tough match against the Netherlands, which we lost,” said Bulgaria coach Georgi Mladenov following the defeat in Podgorica.
“We had a great opportunity to achieve victory, but I am happy because the players gave their maximum. We knew that Montenegro is strong and watched how they claimed their victory against Israel. We now turn our focus to the coming games, first against Israel in front of our fans.”
Edelstein already knew ahead of the campaign that he could rely on his team’s offensive qualities, with the blue-and-white averaging 81.5 points while hitting 48 percent of its field-goal attempts in the first two qualifiers.
However, its defensive play throughout the Montenegro game and the first half against the Netherlands left plenty to be desired. Israel went on to hold the Netherlands to a mere 16 points in the entire second half and that should do wonders to the roster’s confidence ahead of the much tougher challenges that lay ahead.
“We showed our character against the Netherlands and held on for the win,” explained Israel guard Gal Mekel, who has averaged 13.5 points and 5.5 assists over the first two qualifiers. “We can’t afford to look too far ahead.
We need to first overcome Bulgaria and then we can start thinking about Montenegro.”