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(photo credit: AP)
The Israeli national basketball team may not be the favorite to win EuroBasket 2007, but the players are doing everything they can to make sure it happens.
The team played a full-court inter-squad scrimmage Monday at the Hadar Yosef practice facility in Tel Aviv.
Led by Maccabi Tel Aviv's NBA prospects Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin, the sides played a game that included hard fouls, finesse passes, some unacceptable turnovers and a few monstrous dunks.
Although a single point separated the two sides at the end, the attitude and effort shown by the players were what mattered at the end of the day.
Eliyahu exhibited excellent athleticism and an ability to run the floor. He was seemingly everywhere on the court, snatching rebounds, scoring baskets and assisting on shots.
Halperin led his side, showing off his capabilities as a floor general. He dished out three of the game's nicest passes, while using his jump shot and size to out-muscle smaller guards and drive to the basket for scores.
"There is so much respect associated with being on the national team," Eliyahu told The Jerusalem Post after the training session. "We know what we have to do to win."
While the forward is still recovering from the rigors of training with - and playing for - the Houston Rockets in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas last month, he is confident that everybody on the team "will give 110 percent and do whatever we have to do to win."
Their target is the EuroBasket Championship, where, if Israel makes it through the last-chance tournament, they will face the best teams in Europe.
The blue-and-white will meet Denmark on the road in its first game of the last-chance tournament on August 8. It will also play Ukraine and Belgium.
Israel will need to finish first in group play to qualify for a three-team competition in Madrid later in August. The winner will advance to the European basketball championships to be held in Spain at the beginning of September.
"We know we can beat everybody in our group," Eliyahu said. "Now we just have to go out and do it."
While playing for Israel with good friends is a great experience for everybody, Halperin said, "we have to leave the fun at the door if we are going to win." "We must make it to the EuroBasket Championship, and we are going step by step to make sure it happens," he added.
The team has had only a few weeks to practice, but Halperin and Eliyahu are confident it will be ready by the time it leaves for the first qualifying game in Denmark next week.
"Our chances of winning are improving, and the coaches and team will make their best effort to get us into shape," Halperin said.
Although the team has dealt with fatigue problems and the loss of star player Tal Burstein to injury, it showed in the scrimmage that the players want to win badly.
After struggling with his shot at the start, Hapoel Jerusalem's Guy Pnini made shots off powerful drives and hit free throws down the stretch to bring his team within one point in the final minute.
American-born Jeron Roberts played solid defense for his team. Ido Kozikaro and Amit Tamir each chipped in a few points and rebounds, making their presence felt in the middle.
"We have not had enough time to practice, but we are working very hard and I know things will continue to improve," National team coach Tzvika Sherf said. "We only have one week left before a key game, but we will be ready."
"We must not underestimate the other teams," he said. "The people of Israel think that Israel is the main basketball country in the world, but it is not true. We will be facing very good teams throughout the tournament, and we need to know this going in."