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(photo credit: asaf kliger)
Despite winning its first four EuroBasket 2007 last-chance tournament games by an average 17 points, Israel has still got plenty of work to do before it secures its place in the additional qualifying tournament that will begin next week in Menorca, Spain.
Israel, which faces Ukraine on Wednesday night, is currently top of Group C and will need to maintain first position if it's to keep its hopes of reaching the European Championships alive.
The national team needs to finish first in group play in order to qualify for a three-team competition from which only the winner will advance to EuroBasket 2007 which gets underway in Spain on September 3.
Israel (4-0) has improved with every match in recent weeks and is in confident mood ahead of its two final Group C games against Ukraine (1-3) on Wednesday and Belgium (3-1) on Saturday.
"We're in good form, but the Ukrainians are better than we give them credit for," coach Tzvika Sherf said on Tuesday. "We need to play with confidence and not allow them to dictate their style of play."
Sherf will have to manage without Lior Eliyahu, who remained in Israel for his brother's wedding against the coach's wishes.
"Meir Tapiro and Yaniv Green requested that I allow Eliyahu to remain in Israel," said Sherf. "They told me that they will do all they can to make up for his absence. We will have to find a way to win without Eliyahu's unique abilities."
Eliyahu has been one of Israel's most important players this summer, averaging 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
"I'm happy and unhappy," he said. "This was an awkward situation, but it was unavoidable. It's true that I'm a key member of the squad, but the team has excellent players who will get the job done. I will leave for Belgium on Thursday and join up with the national team. There are more important things than sport, and family is one of them."
Israel struggled on its way to an 81-73 victory over Ukraine when the teams first met at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv 11 days ago and will be wary on Wednesday of their ever improving opponents. Ukraine defeated Denmark 74-64 four days after losing to Israel and came up just short against Belgium on Saturday, falling 72-69.
"We mustn't underestimate the Ukrainians," Sherf said. "The only way we can win is if we'll be focused and serious. Ukraine has improved and they will undoubtedly play better than they did in our first meeting."
If Belgium beats Denmark on Wednesday and Israel fails to get the better of Ukraine, than the Belgians will be able to leapfrog the blue-and-white with a slender victory when the team's meet on Saturday.
However, should Israel defeat Ukraine, it will be able to advance to the additional qualifying tournament as long as it loses by less than 19 points against Belgium.
Yotam Halperin, who has been Israel's best player in the last-chance tournament, averaging 22 points per game, said: "This is a very important game. We were successful in our home games, but the next two encounters are the crucial ones. If we don't win these games all our hard work will go down the drain."
Center Yaniv Green will be one of those who will need to lift his game and make up for Eliyahu's absence under the baskets. "We are missing Eliyahu, but we promised ourselves and the coach that we will not let that affect our game," Green said. "The game won't be easy, but we'll be ready."