The national team took care of business on Sunday night, surprising a powerful, but clearly tired, Spanish side 85-77 to advance to the second round at Eurobasket 2005 in Serbia-Montenegro.
Just one week ago Israel was looking at difficult games against Hungary and the Czech Republic just to earn the final spot among the top 16 teams in Europe. Now after four wins in five games within seven days, Israel is among the top 12 and can sneak into the quarterfinals with a second-round win over Greece in Belgrade on Tuesday.
Until now all of Israel's games have been played in Novi Sad.
Israel finished Group D with a 2-1 record like Spain and Serbia, but slipped back to third place due to the three-way tiebreaker. Greece, which defeated Bosnia-Herzegovina on Sunday, finished second in Group C with a 2-1 mark. The Greeks beat France 64-50 in their opener before dropping a 68-56 decision to Slovenia.
On Sunday, Israel simply played like it wanted the game more, outplaying Spain on both sides of the floor. Coach Tzvika Sherf's charges paid a price for their aggression, as the big men were constantly in foul trouble, but even that wasn't enough to slow down the hungry Israelis.
Tal Burstein had another big game, leading Israel with 19 points and five assists, but again it was a team effort that won the game.
Israel's starting big men, Yaniv Green and Ido Kozikaro, both found themselves on the bench early with foul trouble, but the rotation continued with Erez Marckovich and Chris Watson supplying fresh bodies and regular starter Gur Shelef coming off the bench for 15 big points.
In all Israel committed 34 fouls 19 more than Spain and had two players (Green and Watson) foul out and another three finish with four apiece.
Yotam Halperin, who started in part to try and stifle the high-scoring Spanish attack, did his part on offense with a pair of jumpers in the first quarter. And Meir Tapiro turned in another solid all around performance, where his defense (four steals) almost outshined his offense (seven points, five assists).
Spain, which scored more than 20 points in six of the eight regulation quarters it played in the first two games, passed the 20-point mark only once against Israel and still was outscored 32-31 in that period.
Guard Juan Carlos Navarro, whose 31 points per game led the tournament coming into the game, was held to just nine. Forward Jorge Garbajosa, who had game-highs of 21 points and nine rebounds, needed to work extra hard for his shots, which led to him committing six turnovers as well.
The win improves Israel's record in official games to 8-1 in Sherf's current term. The only loss was against Serbia on Saturday night.
Both teams got off to slow starts in the opening minutes Spain needed nearly three minutes before Felipe Reyes netted its first points, Israel took another 45 seconds until Burstein drilled a three to put the blue-and-white on the scoreboard.
Halperin's three with less than three minutes to go in the quarter gave Israel its first lead at 10-9 and the expected collapse never arrived. A pair of Shelef hoops saw the lead grow to 21-16 early in the second period and Israel held on for a 33-29 halftime lead.
The pace of the game changed in the third, with the teams combining to score more than they had in the entire first half. But still Shelef and Burstein kept Israel on top.
Spain, benefitting from 10 free throws in the last 2:30 of the period, narrowed the gap to just three before Kozikaro beat the buzzer to end the period with Israel up 65-60.
The Israelis then dominated early in the fourth as the lead grew and grew.
Moshe Mizrahi started the fourth by nailing a three-pointer and then Tapiro set up Kozikaro to give Israel a 10-point cushion. Two minutes later Tapiro found Mizrahi for another three to make it 75-64 and a minute later a Dror Hajaj layup gave Israel its biggest lead.
Spain cut into the lead towards the end, but never came close enough to threaten. The Israelis started to celebrate with 56 seconds remaining after Kozikaro scored and was fouled by Felipe Reyes, effectively ending the game.