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After a full month of training and six games in the last three weeks, Israel faces Bosnia on Thursday night in the first of two games in Menorca, Spain, that will determine whether the team advances to EuroBasket 2007 via the backdoor.
The national team, which was relegated to the last-chance tournament after finishing last in its qualifying group last summer, won five of its six games in recent weeks and booked its place in the additional qualifying tournament in Menorca by finishing top of Group C.
Israel will also be looking for a small measure of revenge on Thursday after losing 85-63 to Bosnia in the initial qualifying tournament in 2006.
However, a lot has happened in a year, with Lior Eliyahu the most notable change in the sqaud from last summer.
"We want to advance to the European Championships. That has been our goal right from the start," said Eliyahu, who has averaged 14.4 points and 5.8 rebounds in the last-chance tournament. "It won't be easy, but we can make it simple by winning both our games."
The additional qualifying tournament got underway with Macedonia's game against Bosnia on Wednesday night, with Israel playing Macedonia on Friday night in its second and last game of the tournament.
Only the winner of the three-team contest will advance to EuroBasket 2007 and will join Russia, Greece and Serbia in the preliminary round, which begins on September 3.
"We're feeling good and believe we can advance to the European Championships," coach Tzvika Sherf said. "I've already coached in six or seven European Championships, but I'm still excited ahead of every game."
The Bosnians have a very balanced squad and are not led by any one particular player. Kenan Bajramovic (11.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Jasmin Hukic (12 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Sasa Vasiljevic (12.5 ppg, 4 rpg) are three of the more important members of the Bosnian team that split its four games in the last-chance tournament.
Maccabi Tel Aviv guard Yotam Halperin will have a crucial role to play for Israel in its two upcoming games, especially when considering his disappointing performance in the blue-and-whites loss against Belgium. Halperin, who had averaged 21.4 points in his first five last-chance tournament games, scored just seven points in the team's loss to Belgium last Saturday and will need to be back at his very best for Israel to progress.
"We're in good shape, both mentally and physically," Halperin said. "We can't make any mistakes."
The key for Israel will likely be the play of Meir Tapiro. After scoring a combined seven points in his first two games, Tapiro lifted his play and averaged 13.8 points in four games and also grabbed 5.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists. The veteran Tapiro, who has made 102 appearances for the national team, will have to maintain his current form for Israel to have any chance of winning its two games.
Ido Kozikaro is surprisingly Israel's in-form player, scoring 12 points in each of the team's last two games after contributing an identical amount in the blue-and-white's first four qualifiers.
"We need to play with heart and soul to advance," Kozikaro said. "The games will be very difficult, but I believe we will accomplish our goal. We will have to play at our very best to progress and I think we will do so."
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