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(photo credit: AP)
Meir Tapiro drilled four free throws in the final 8 seconds to lead Israel's national basketball team to a stunning 87-83 win over mighty Serbia on Wednesday in Granada, Spain, sending the blue-and-whites to the second round of the EuroBasket championships.
Israel trailed for two-and-a-half quarters, and took the lead for the first time midway through the third quarter, but inspired team play in the last period took coach Tzvika SherfÂ¹s men to victory.
A huge game from Yaniv Green, Yotam HalperinÂ¹s steady leadership, chutzpa on both ends of the court from Guy Pniny, a big-time three pointer from Jeron Roberts and TapiroÂ¹s clutch play in the final minute all played key parts in a win that places Israel among the top 12 teams in Europe.
Green finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds to lead Israel, Halperin added 17, Pniny and Tapiro had 11 each and Roberts 9.
Milan Gurovic led Serbia with 19 points, Darko Milicic of the NBAÂ¹s Memphis Grizzlies added 18 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocked shots and Marko Jaric of the Minnesota Timberwolves posted 11 points and 6 assists.
Israel will now advance to the next stage in Madrid, where it will face world champion and host nation Spain on Friday, Latvia on Saturday and Croatia on Sunday, knowing it will probably need to win at least two games to qualify for the quarterfinals.
With the tournament using a new competition system, the top three teams from Group A (Russia, Greece and Israel) will now join up with the top three from Group B to battle for four spots in the quarterfinals. Unlike the past, the teams carry over their records against each other, but not against the
fourth place team in the group, meaning Israel begins the stage with a 0-2 record.
The result was especially surprising not only due to the quality of the Sebian side, which features a pair of NBA players and a European star in Gurovic, but because it came just 24 hours after a 90-56 capitulation to Russia.
Regaining their own respect was an issue with all the players when they spoke to the press after the game.
"After what happened against Russia, it was important for us to prove we belonged," Green said.
"We wanted to prove that Israel is worth something in European basketball," Pniny added.
Pniny replaced Roberts in the starting five, but it had little impact early on as only Green managed to shine for Israel, which trailed 23-16 after 10 minutes. SherfÂ¹s men cut the gap to 30-28 on a Lior Eliyahu tip-in midway through the second quarter, but Serbia coach Zoran Slavnic called a timeout, after which his side scored the next 5 points and increased the lead to 12 on a pair of Milos Teodosic baskets. Only a Halperin triple allowed Israel to keep the deficit at 45-36 at halftime.
Green got going early in the third period and Israel slowly, but surely, got back in the game. Halperin fed Green for a three-point play that made it 53-50 midway through the period, HalperinÂ¹s next three-pointer made it a two-point game and with three minutes left in the period, Tapiro gave Israel its first lead, 59-58.
The game remained tight from that point, with four more lead changes in the next five minutes of game action.
The turning point came three minutes into the the fourth, when Pniny scored 5 straight points on a fast break and a three to put Israel up 68-62.
Gurovic and Jaric answered back for Serbia, but then Roberts stepped up, first with two free throws and then with a clutch three in TeodosicÂ¹s face to put Israel up 75-68 with three minutes remaining. Even though Serbia never quit, that shot seemed to give Israel the confidence it needed to hold on.
Milicic made it 79-77 with 44 seconds remaining, however Jaric fouled out on the next play and Tapiro extended the lead from the line.
With 21 seconds to go and Serbia still within 2, Vuk Radivoljevic was called for an unsportsmanlike foul on Matan Naor, who would go on to make three crucial free throws.
The game then came down to free-throw shooting, but Tapiro was up for the challenge and preserved the big win.