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The national basketball team will be looking to regain some of its lost pride on Wednesday night when it faces Macedonia in Sofia, Bulgaria, in its fourth Eurobasket 2007 qualifier.
Israel's European championships qualifying campaign has been a humbling experience so far. The team was expected to qualify with ease from its group but it lost three of its first four games. The lowest point was reached Saturday night when it was humiliated in a 22-point loss by previously winless Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Israel, which still has a theoretical chance of qualifying automatically for Eurobasket 2007, needs a big win on Wednesday and also has to hope that Bosnia beats Portugal, in order to keep its narrow hopes alive.
"I don't want to be unrealistic," Israel coach Tzvika Sherf said on Tuesday after being asked if he thinks his team can still qualify automatically. "I wanted to beat Portugal and we lost. I wanted to beat Bosnia and we lost. Let's first defeat Macedonia and then we will see what happens."
Israel lost 90-87 to Macedonia in Skopje 10 days ago in what was the beginning of a three-game win streak for the former Yugoslav republic. Unlike Israel, Macedonia has had a successful campaign so far and will have everything to play for on Wednesday. The team, which leads the qualifying group after four games with a 3-1 record, is highly dependent on three of its players. Ryan Stack (21 ppg, 7.75 rpg), Vrbica Stefanov (19 ppg, 4.5 apg) and Todor Gecevski (16.3 ppg, 7 rpg) score more than 60 percent of their team's points and each average more than 30 minutes on court per game.
Besides slowing down the Macedonian stars, Israel will need to finally play up to its potential. Only Jamie Arnold (21 ppg) has scored more than 12 points per game and the other players' recent form will not be enough for a win on Wednesday, not to mention a victory by a substantial margin.
"We are not in a situation that we should be talking about margins of victory," Israel guard Matan Naor said on Tuesday morning before flying to Bulgaria. "With the way we played in our last game, we first and foremost just need to win."
Arnold, who is the one player that can honestly say he has played at his best in the qualifying campaign, was in a philosophical mood before the flight.
"Sometimes the difference from everybody being happy and everybody being upset is two points," he noted. "I can't really say what went wrong. We caught some bad losses at the bad time. It's not such a good feeling for us right now."