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(photo credit: asaf kliger)
Israel beat Great Britain 102-92 in its first EuroBasket 2009 qualifier in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night, but the national team first needed to force the game into overtime before pulling ahead in the final minutes.
All seemed lost when, with three seconds left, British point guard Nate Reinking scored one of two free throws to put his team 85-83 ahead.
But the same player then inexplicably fouled Israel captain Meir Tapiro a second before the final buzzer and the veteran Bnei Hasharon player scored both his free shows to ensure the extension.
Once in overtime, Israel pulled away and confirmed the win with a Matan Naor triple.
"I expected Great Britain to play this well," Israel coach Tzvika Sherf said. "I had seen them in six preparation games and watched a number of their games on video."
Israel now plays three Group D games on the road within a week - against Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic and the British once again - before hosting its final two games on September 17 and 20.
Tapiro, who led Israel's scorers with 27 points, was not totally satisfied with the team's performance.
"The most important thing we need to do for the game against Bosnia is to improve our defense," he told The Jerusalem Post.
"It is unacceptable for us to concede 92 points at home but the most important thing is that we won. We will figure out what to do for Bosnia."
As had been expected, Britain's NBA player Luol Deng was the star of the show at Nokia Arena, scoring 30 points.
But in the end he was not enough, and the Chicago Bulls forward fouled out with three and a half minutes to play in the extra five minute period, leaving his teammates unable to stop the final thrust from the home team.
Deng was quite impressed with the Israelis.
"These guys are good," he said, when asked if he thought any of the Israel players could play to his level.
"They play together as a team. It was a great atmosphere and I can see that Israelis love basketball," he added.
"We can be happy with some aspects as we played against a good team with a great player [Deng]," Sherf stated. "The first half wasn't good because of our defense but we improved in the second half."
Indeed, while the Brits opened the encounter with a show of enthusiasm, Israel started the game poorly on the defensive end, letting its opponent through on far too many occasions. As well, the Israeli shooters had a hard time making easy baskets on open looks.
Nevertheless, it was tight over the start of the first quarter with the score tied at 16 with three minutes to go until the first break. But a triple from Britain's Steve Leven, a Deng layup and two more from Leven put Great Britain up 23-16 two minutes before the end of the period, a lead it would hold on to until half way through the third quarter.
Israel just wasn't in the game in the first half; the team wasn't playing as a team, while Deng was on fire, dunking with both hands to make it a ten point game (35-25) and then leaping to block a Lior Eliyahu effort with a ferocity rarely seen on the Nokia court.
However, Eliyahu wasn't discouraged and he went on an impressive individual run ending in a layup which gave him is tenth point of the game.
Omri Casspi came in three minutes before the half and made an immediate impact, passing, stealing and scoring points on top of it all.
With the scores at 47-42, Matan Noar came out and scored as soon as the second half began.
Finally a three from Tapiro with five minutes left of the quarter put Israel back in the lead (57-55) and Eliyahu blocked an effort by Boateng and then slammed a dunk home to put Israel firmly in the driving seat with a 59-55 advantage.
Naor was having a superb defensive game, stopping attack after attack as the clock ticked down.
The fourth quarter saw no let-up in either team's efforts, but Israel stayed ahead due to strong defense. Deng missed a three-point chance with the scores at 79-73 and the game seemed to be slipping away from the visitors.
But with just under three minutes to go the lead was only a single point (79-78).
Naor fouled Deng with 27.8 seconds on the clock and the Bulls star wasn't going to miss from the free throw line.
Israel took a timeout with the Brits in the lead 84-83 and was lucky to push the game into an extra period.
The score stayed close in overtime until Deng was forced out with his fifth foul.
Without their star player, the Brits lost their confidence and the Israelis grew in stature. Yaniv Green slam dunked to make it 99-92 with 17 seconds left and it was all but over.
Naor then sunk a triple and Israel ended up winning by a misleading double-digit tally.
Roee Farkash contributed to this report.
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