(photo credit: AP)
Israel pulled off another upset in the Eurobasket 2007 tournament, beating Croatia 80-75 on Friday night in Madrid. Tzvika Sherf's team, which plays Portugal on Sunday night, now has a real chance to make it to the quarterfinal stage.
The Israelis entered Friday's Group E game as clear underdogs. But their trademark hustle play and transition basketball paid quick dividends. The Croatians were caught off guard and succumbed after a poor fourth quarter.
Sherf has asked his players to keep the celebrations to a minimum ahead of the crucial game against Portugal. A win will help the team secure fourth place in Group E, which secures a place in the quarterfinals.
Portugal opened its Group E campaign with a loss to David Blatt's Russia. The team is being labeled by the experts as the weakest team in the group, but veteran coach Sherf is well aware of the potential threat.
"Portugal is an experienced team with a proven record," Sherf said ahead of the game. "We may have the edge in the talent department, but they have some physical and strong players. It's not going to be easy."
"We must not underestimate them. Yotam Halperin and Meir Tapiro will be guarded tightly, making the role player's contribution crucial. The key is to concentrate and stay aggressive, like in our previous games."
Yaniv Green was in good spirits after the win saying: "It can hardly get better than this. Beating a team of Croatia's caliber is very satisfying. I don't remember when we last beat the mighty Croatia. We are playing better in every game and the sky is the limit."
"We proved our worth today," a jubilant Halperin told reporters after the game. "Many of our players were injured and lacked match fitness, but they played their hearts out. It's hard to put this performance into words."
"Playing with passion is not enough against the top teams. You need to have some quality players on the floor. Our team is a blend of both things. I'm optimistic about the game against Portugal. We can do it."
Lior Eliyahu is still struggling to return to form, so Sherf had to continue with his makeshift big-man rotation. Ido Kozikaro was slated as the starting power forward, but Amir Tamir was also in the grind.
The Israeli team was completely dominated by the Croatians in the opening minutes. Barcelona's Mario Kasun powered his team forward with two quick baskets and Croatia led 17-14 after the first period.
But Sherf made a series of substitutions, which created numerous defensive mismatches on the floor. Kasun got into foul trouble and Israel clawed its way back into contention. By halftime Israel was trailing by only two points (33-35).
Yaniv Green exploded in the second half. The Israeli center displayed an array of impressive post moves and dominated the paint to put his side ahead for good. Croatia cut the lead to 75-78 in the final minutes, but was unable to turn the tide.
Green finished the game with 17 points and 16 boards, his second straight double-double. Jeron Roberts turned in a classy defensive effort and also chipped in 15 points for the winners. Tamir finished with 11 points.
Kasun, a former Orlando Magic star, led the Croatians with 18 points and 7 rebounds. Former New Jersey Nets guard Zoran Planinic managed only 9 points and committed no less than 5 fatal turnovers in the game.
On TV: Israel vs Portugal (live at 5:30p.m. on Sport 5)