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(photo credit: AP)
Israel's national basketball team flirted with what would have been the biggest upset of the opening of the EuroBasket championships Monday night, but fell short in the final minutes before losing 76-66 to reigning European champion Greece at the Palacio Municipal de Deportes in Granada, Spain.
Yotam Halperin had another big night with 20 points and six assists, but his partner in Israel's big first half, Yaniv Green, was hurt at the start of the third quarter and Israel struggled against the bigger Greeks without their top inside player.
Green finished with 11 points and seven rebounds. Jeron Roberts came through with 13 points, while Meir Tapiro made up for a poor shooting night with eight rebounds and six assists.
The loss was Israel's ninth straight against Greece, who got 19 from Vasileios Spanoulis, 15 apiece from Demos Dikoudis and Kostas Tsartsaris and 9 from Euroleague MVP Theo Papaloukas.
Things won't get any easier for the blue-and-white side on Tuesday, when they go up against mighty Russia and its Israeli coach David Blatt, who defeated former world champion Serbia 73-65 earlier Monday.
Blatt knows Israel better than any team that Tzvika Sherf and co. could face. Blatt in fact was appointed to coach Israel through this campaign, but was then forced to resign the post over bureaucratic matters. He went on to become the first non-Russian to ever coach Team Russia.
Russian star Andrei Kirikenko led Blatt's side to Monday's victory with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.
Other players Israel will need to work hard to contain include playmaker J.R. Holden and 2.17-meter center Aleksey Savrasenko.
Against Greece, Israel struggled out of the gate and quickly fell behind 7-0. Sherf's men came right back and before the end of the period, Halperin put Israel on top 16-15.
Dikoudis restored Greece's lead at 28-26 in the second quarter, but Green answered with a bucket in the paint and Halperin - who together with Green combined for all 15 of Israel's second-period points - hit another clutch three to put Israel back on top 31-28.
Tsartsaris managed to tie it one more with a basket-plus-foul and the teams headed to the lockers at halftime with the score knotted 31-31.
Reserve center Erez Marckovich was forced into the spotlight when Green had his eye poked by Nikos Chatzirettas and he didn't disappoint as the teams remained neck-and-neck for much of the quarter.
Israel took its biggest lead, 46-42, on Roberts's transition basket with 2:37 remaining, but that only seemed to trigger the Greeks, who responded with seven quick points to regain the lead.
Greece went up 52-46 on Tsartsaris's second three, though Tapiro capped the period with a basket in penetration to keep Israel within 4 heading into the last 10 minutes.
Roberts scored the opening basket of the fourth quarter with an acrobatic move over Tsartsaris, but on the other end, Papaloukas was just heating up.
First he drained a three, Spanoulis followed, and then after a Green free throw, Papaloukas hit one more as Greece soared to its biggest lead yet, 61-52.
Guy Pnini came off the bench to spark Israel, but another Papaloukas three-pointer kept Greece ahead by seven.
Halperin's three-point-play would cut it to 68-64, but Tsartsaris came through once more from downtown and Spanoulis added a jump shot to put Greece ahead 9 with two minutes to go and Israel never got within striking distance again.