(photo credit: AP)
Israel has qualified for the upcoming Eurobasket 2007 tournament, after beating FYROM 92-87 in Friday evening's crucial last chance qualifier. The Israelis had beaten Bosnia and Herzegovina in their previous game.
There will be no time to rest, as the national team kicks off its Eurobasket campaign on Monday against Greece, who are the reigning European champions and World Championship runner-ups and are considered clear favorites for the game.
The Israelis will also have to deal with Serbia and Russia in Group A of the competition. Russia is currently being guided by David Blatt, the Israeli-American coach who spent five seasons at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Tzvika Sherf's side had to survive a defiant challenge from a veteran FYROM side, which almost completed a dramatic comeback in the final minutes. But the Israelis eventually held on with a brilliant backcourt display.
"It's a great achievement," Sherf said after the nail-biting end. "We played a solid and sound basketball game today. They made some low percentage shots which kept them in the game, but we were strong enough to deny them."
"This is an important win for Israeli basketball. We have been through qualification before, but this summer was very hard. We deserve this success. This is a very proud team that always puts in the maximum effort," he said.
Yotam Halperin said he was proud of the team's achievement.
"We played our hearts out tonight. But there's very little time to rejoice, as we have to prepare for our next game," he said. "The draw is very tough and we'll have to play hard." "Israel has to participate in big tournaments to continue improving. I have full faith in my teammates and we are ready for the upcoming challenges. We have a chance to win against any team," he said.
Meir Tapiro said after the game that he "would like to thank the fans back home who made all this possible. I'll never forget the 9,000 fans at Nokia Arena who helped us beat Belgium. We fought hard for qualification, but we still have to prove ourselves."
"This team has to do well at the Eurobasket for the image of Israeli basketball," he continued. "All this doesn't mean anything if we falter against the big teams. We want to surprise our Group A opponents."
In Menorca, Sherf had to alter his starting lineup due to Lior Eliyahu's ailment. Maccabi Tel Aviv's dominant forward was benched due to fatigue, caused by a virus that had struck him last week. Ido Kozikaro and Yaniv Green started in the frontcourt.
Halperin powered Israel to a 23-18 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Maccabi Tel Aviv shooting guard scored 15 of his 26 points in the first period and looked virtually unstoppable.
But FYROM kept biting into Israel's lead thanks to the leadership of veteran Vrbica Stefanov and the scoring of swingman Vlado Ilievski. A poor defensive stretch helped FYROM make it 41-42 at halftime.
Israel produced a good third quarter, outscoring its rivals 29-19 and taking a promising 80-66 lead mid-way into the final period. But just when it seemed like FYROM was out of it, Israel started playing loose defense.
The Macedonians made a spirited run in the final minutes, with Ilievski providing the spark in attack. The Israeli lead was cut to three points only (88-85), with 25 seconds left on the clock.
Ilievski drew a foul and made both his shots from the charity stripe, making it a one-point game. But Yaniv Green made a quick basket, with Dror Hajaj sealing the fate of the game with an offensive rebound and two free throws.
Meir Tapiro shook off the rust and registered 20 points, 6 boards and 7 assists. Ido Kozikaro did a good job in the paint with 6 points and 10 boards. Lior Eliyahu finished with 15 points in just 19 minutes of play.