Young Team Israel elevates to snatch basketball bronze

Next up for this Israel National Team is a date with Auburn and its Jewish head coach, Bruce Pearl which will be quite the challenge.

 ISRAELI PLAYERS celebrate with their Maccabiah medals (photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)
ISRAELI PLAYERS celebrate with their Maccabiah medals
(photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)

While the Israel National Basketball youth teams are in action playing in various countries for their respective European Championships over the course of the summer, one squad that may have slipped through the cracks of the national hoops conscience is Adir Amar’s Under-20 crew that just captured the bronze medal at the Maccabiah Games... in the Open (all ages) tournament, no less.

While the United States defended its title with an 81-70 win over France in the gold-medal game, the Israeli squad downed Canada 107-75 in the third-place contest to capture the bronze. The youngest team in the event, the Sabras were able to celebrate a terrific accomplishment against older and more experienced players as they have just begun to make waves locally.

From the likes of Israel Winner League players such as Daniel Guetta and Ido Harel, to those who ply their trade in the Leumit League like Nevo Sommerfeld, Omer Hamama and Ariel Isaak, along with youngsters Roi Behar and Roi Avneri, blue-and-white basketball has plenty to look forward to.

Amar’s squad featured players between the ages of 17 and 20 that were too young for the U20 Euros or too old for the U18 and U16 teams, as well as some who did not receive many minutes over the course of last season and therefore were passed over for the teams that went to the European Championships.

So when the National Team program came calling to recruit this special group of players to represent Israel, it was a gift from heaven. These players would now have an opportunity to go for a medal at the “Jewish Olympics” while also continuing to hone their trade and play against some terrific competition including the US, Canada, France, Argentina and Australia.

One player who really took the bull by the horns was Guetta, who has been playing with Hapoel Gilboa/Galil. The point guard, who was used sparingly by head coach Guy Kaplan throughout the season, did have the chance to work with pros who played at the highest levels in the United States and Europe.

That experience and hard work paid off brilliantly at the Maccabiah where Guetta led all Israeli scorers with 15.5 points while also playing stellar defense as he was arguably the squad’s MVP over the six games.

“Last season, I had a very tough time with the National Teams as Hamama and I were the last cuts for the U18 team,” Guetta began. “But I took the opportunity to work really hard and I said that this year there would be no way that this will happen again. I started with the U20 team and then came here and said to myself that I would do the utmost to be the leading player and I am very happy that this is what in fact happened.

“I was able to gain so much last season with Gilboa, especially that the professionalism was on another level altogether. Every day I would arrive early in the morning, work out, eat properly and treat it as a job. If you don’t work hard you won’t be at that level. I also played in the third division so I was able to really get in some playing time as well and learn to make plays in seconds and not in a minute. This was extremely helpful in my development and I very happy as to the decisions that I made last year."

Another important player for Israel was Harel, who scored 13 points in the bronze-medal match and played for Ariel Beit Halachmi at Hapoel Eilat last season.

The guard echoed Guetta’s sentiments about having had the chance to be with the top division team throughout an entire campaign and using that experience to his advantage with the Maccabiah squad.

“It gave me so much, whether it was the practices which were at a very high level or the chance to match up with American and Israeli senior players, “ noted Harel. “It was much more physical, a totally different pace and that gives one so much as I was able to continue to improve.”

It was clear that Guetta and Harel were a level above most of the players at this tournament, along with Isaak, who spent time last season in the Leumit League, and Behar, who played with Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth team and also featured in the Euroleague Next Generation Tournament.

“This was a lot of fun and while we wanted to win gold we battled and made sure to come into the bronze game with the right mindset,” Behar explained. “You were able to see incredible character after two easy wins following two painful losses as we were able to pick ourselves up. This isn’t something that should be taken for granted. It’s real character to be able to pull yourselves together after those types of defeats."

Behar, who at 17-year-old was the youngest player on the team, was also very thankful to have the opportunity to play in the competition.

“As a youth player this was my first chance to play against real professional players and men. This was a lot of fun as I was able to experience a totally different level of intensity and toughness. I also was able to meet a lot of new people and that was fantastic.”

On any given day at this tournament, any one of the 12 players on the roster could have been a key component for the team’s success and that was something that coach Amar was very focused on.

One game it was Avneri, the next Oz Lavi or Ziv Weissman the next it may have been Sommerfeld, Hamama or Nir Sheffer. That was the beauty of this squad, which will also have one more game coming up against Auburn University on August 2.

“You’ve seen exactly that throughout the competition,” Amar said. “Every game it was another player who just was fabulous and this is a national team where any one player could be the X-Factor. Our outside shooting was a very important part of this team and that was something that we put a huge emphasis on as we prepared for the Maccabiah. Every player has the ability to go from deep and I am very happy that we did this at a very high level.“The experience gained was super important as everyone here was fairly young and can be a part of the Under-20 team next year as well so this was very crucial for everyone here.”

The next step

Next up for this Israel National Team is a date with Auburn and its Jewish head coach, Bruce Pearl which will be quite the challenge. While Jabari Smith is no longer on the Tigers after departing for the NBA, Auburn is still very, very loaded at every single position and will certainly be quite the matchup for the Maccabiah team.

“This will be yet another game where the experience is the main thing for the players,” Amar commented.” We will take a couple of days off to rest and then get back to practice on Tuesday. We have to be grounded, modest and hungry to work hard with passion to keep training and play the game next week.”Guetta also spoke about the upcoming challenge.

“This will be a really tough game and it’s a very good college. But we will do everything in our power to battle and it doesn’t matter who we are against, we won’t back down.”