Basketball: Israel aims for home win against Brits

National team hosts Britain at Nokia Arena in first EuroBasket 2009 qualifier.

Israel basketball 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Israel basketball 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The months of preparation will come to an end on Wednesday as Israel finally begins its campaign to qualify for the 2009 EuroBasket Championships with a home game against Great Britain. Despite having not missed a European Championship since 1993, the national team has played below par in qualifying for the tournament in recent years. Both last summer and three years ago Israel only managed to get to the EuroBasket through the last chance tournament, although once in Spain last August the team impressed, defeating noteworthy opponents such as Serbia and Croatia before bowing out in the first round. The consensus within the Israel camp is that the national team can't allow itself to fall into the last chance situation again and must qualify directly from Group D where it plays the Czech Republic and Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Britain, both home and away over the next two and a half weeks. "We are very good when playing with our backs against the wall," said coach Tzvika Sherf at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. "But I sincerely hope it doesn't have to come to that. "It is extremely important to start off with a win plus we can't allow ourselves to lose home games. "I believe that we are in very good shape and tactically we couldn't be more prepared. The British team is not one to take lightly but in our situation we can't really afford to undermine any of the squads." Referring to injuries to players including Tal Burstein as well as the absence of Dror Hagag, who asked for some time off and will also not be competing, Sherf added: "There were setbacks with a player or two, but besides them I have no doubt that the rest of the players invested all of their efforts into this year's campaign. "This is not uncommon for national teams. Just now Germany's [Dirk] Nowitsky and Spain's [Pau] Gasol asked for time off from their international teams after the Olympics. "It's quite a dilemma, how can you persuade a player to play for his national team if he isn't interested. There isn't a standard protocol of what a coach must do in these situations." In contrast to recent years ,the national team isn't led by any one star. Meir Tapiro is the undisputed captain in Sherf's puzzle and Yaniv Green has shown over the years that, even after disappointing seasons, he knows how to put it all behind him and perform at his best when it comes to the national team. Tapiro and Green alone will not be enough, though. Promising youngsters - including Yotam Halperin, Lior Elyahu and Guy Pnini - will be extremely important assets to the national side just like Maccabi Tel Aviv's 20 year old forward Omri Casspi, who put in some excellent displays in the recent practice games. While Israel doesn't have a player who can match up to Britain's Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng, the rest of the visiting squad is lackluster at best. Joventut Badalona's athletic power forward Pops Mensah Bonsu is regarded as the secondary major threat. Tapiro stayed confident on Tuesday. "We will win, everything will be just fine," Tapiro stated at the press conference. First and foremost we must rely on our defense and make sure we battle ferociously for rebounds and loose balls. The second thing is the importance of our home crowd supporting us. Personally, I am very aware of the responsibility I carry but it is something I enjoy very much." Sherf also commented on the significance of the home support, which is expected to fill Nokia Arena on Wednesday evening. "I will be extremely obliged to each and every fan who comes to support us because, after all, it was the fans who pushed us last year and helped us achieve."