Israel turned in a spectacular 30-minute performance, but tired and was put away by host nation Serbia-Montenegro 93-77 in a Group D Eurobasket match Saturday night in Novi Sad. But after a 74-65 victory in its opening game on Friday against Latvia, Israel already has one foot in the next round.
Either a win on Sunday against Group D leader Spain or a Serbian victory over Latvia in the nightcap will send Israel into the second round where it would face an opponent from Group C.
Working in Israel's favor will be the fact that Spain has essentially assured itself first place in the group (only a 20-point loss to Israel could knock Spain out of first) and that the Spanish side will arrive tired after a hardfought 114-109 overtime win over Latvia earlier Saturday.
Israel would have needed a perfect showing to upset the Serbs who, despite their poor showing against Spain in an 89-70 defeat on Friday, are still the reigning world champs. The blue-and-white struggled from the free-throw line, making only 11-of-21 (52.3 percent), were outrebounded 36-26 and committed 15 turnovers.
On the other hand, Serbia didn't get big games from several of its stars and was clearly feeling the pressure from its fans.
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Marko Jaric and New Jersey Nets center Nenad Krstic made the difference in the end, as the hosts turned a tied game into a rout with a 20-0 run at the start of the fourth quarter. Krstic scored seven of the first eight points during the run and finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Jaric, who failed to score on Friday, led his team with 19.
Tal Burstein led Israel with 20 points and six assists and got help from Meir Tapiro and Afik Nissim as Israel often leaned on the player with the hot hand. Yaniv Green did his best against the powerful Serbian frontline, adding 11 points and 10 boards, but it simply wasn't enough.
Israel seemed overpowered and outclassed in the opening minutes as the hosts scored at will and punished Tzvika Sherf's charges for every error. After an Igor Rakosevic jumper put Serbia up 23-12, there didn't seem to be much hope for Israel. But Dror Hajaj's defense helped Israel recharge its batteries and seven straight points put Israel back in the game.
Burstein fed Ido Kozikaro inside on the first play of the second quarter to pull Israel within a basket. Kozikaro's presence was felt on the other end as well, frustrating Serbia's NBA center, Zeljko Rebraca. Midway through the period, Kozikaro scored inside to tie the game at 32-32, drew an offensive foul from Rebraca on the other end, and then converted a missed Meir Tapiro three to give Israel its first lead with 5:03 showing on the clock.
Serbia immediately called timeout and stopped the Israeli momentum. The hosts outscored Israel, which didn't make another field goal until there were 26 seconds left in the half, 15-4 to take a 47-38 halftime lead.
Israel changed its game plan a bit in the third, shifting Burstein to small forward and going with a smaller lineup. Nissim, who didn't play at all in the first half, came on and made his presence felt at first on the defensive end and later on offense too. Burstein continued his sharp shooting from beyond the arc, and when Tapiro finally found his stroke, Israel was right back in the game.
During a two-minute stretch late in the third, Tapiro scored eight points and assisted on a Nissim three, capping the 11-4 run when he stole a ball under the Israel basket from Darko Milicic, raced out to the three-point line and drained a trifecta to tie the game at 61-61.
The teams traded buckets through the end of the third and into the fourth, when a Nissim jumper tied the game at 67-67. But that was the end of the road for the blue-andwhite. Serbia, led by Krstic and Marko Jaric, reeled off 20 unanswered points to the delight of the sold-out arena to put the game away.
Scorers against Serbia-Montenegro: Tal Burstein 20 (6 assists), Yaniv Green 11 (10 rebounds), Meir Tapiro 10, Afik Nissim 9, Chris Watson 9, Ido Kozikaro 8, Moshe Mizrahi 4, Sharon Sasson 3, Dror Hajaj 2 (7 steals), Erez Marckovich 1.
Israel 74, Latvia 65
On Friday night, Israel burst out to an 11-2 lead thanks to Moshe Mizrahi's red-hot three-point shooting, but it didn't take long for Latvia to get back in the picture.
The game remained tight with Israel trailing 41-38 at halftime after a Tapiro three at the buzzer.
The Israeli defense made the difference in the third period, holding Latvia scoreless for the first five minutes and to eight points in the whole quarter as Israel built a promising lead. However Latvia didn't relent and came back to take a 58-57 advantage early in the fourth. But that's when they ran out of steam. Israel scored six straight points and remained in control down the stretch to open the tournament with a win.
Scorers against Latvia: Dror Hajaj 18 (5 steals), Gur Shelef 15 (4 assists), Moshe Mizrahi 12, Yaniv Green 11 (8 rebounds), Meir Tapiro 9 (10 rebounds, 4 assists), Tal Burstein 4, Chris Watson 2, Ido Kozikaro 2, Afik Nissim 1