Israel's U20 basketball team looks ahead after silver medal

The heartbreaking overtime loss to France in the Euro final doesn’t diminish from blue-and-white’s U20 heroics.

 DANNY WOLF and Israel came oh-so-close to notching a comeback victory over France in the Under-20 European Championship final, but settled for second place (photo credit: FIBA)
DANNY WOLF and Israel came oh-so-close to notching a comeback victory over France in the Under-20 European Championship final, but settled for second place
(photo credit: FIBA)

Tears poured out of Danny Wolf’s eyes following Israel’s dramatic 89-79 overtime defeat to France at the Under-20 FIBA European Championship in Heraklion on Sunday night. The Yale University product was inconsolable as he languished on the court following the final whistle.

His teammate Noam Yaacov came over and gave him a hug and some words of encouragement, but the big man’s eyes continued to tear up as the drops were the size of an ocean that he had crossed less than two months ago to play for a country that he had only visited as an American Jew.

The 19-year-old was named to the Team of the Tournament along with Yaacov but even the personal awards could not cheer Wolf up to the point where he could crack a bit of a smile for the postgame ceremony and photos.

Wolf had been so close to having taken his adopted country of Israel to the promised land that would have given the young blue-and-white a third championship in the last four tournaments.

After tying up the game at 72-72 with just 11 seconds left in regulation, Wolf went to the line and had a chance to potentially put the game away and take the lead. However, as has happened many times to some of the greats that have ever played the game of basketball, his free throw came up short and the contest went to overtime where Les Bleus took care of an exhausted Israel and claimed the title.

 NOAM YAACOV (center) has been one of the bright spots for Israel at the Under-20 European Championships. The blue-and-white next face Spain in the round-of-16. (credit: FIBA/COURTESY)
NOAM YAACOV (center) has been one of the bright spots for Israel at the Under-20 European Championships. The blue-and-white next face Spain in the round-of-16. (credit: FIBA/COURTESY)

'It was heartbreaking'

“It was heartbreaking,” Yaacov explained following the game. “Danny took that free throw miss to heart and I told him that without him we would have never been able to get to this point. We may not have won but we made history and I am very proud of that.”

Stepping up to the line can be the loneliest place for any basketball player. It’s just you and the hoop. One-on-one.

Wolf had done more than anyone could have ever asked of him or had expected him to do in this competition as he averaged a double-double in seven games, scoring 17.7 points while grabbing 12 rebounds a game. He had shot 76% from the line but in this game it had been a rough day at the office.

The charity stripe, as they call it, can be cruel.

It was for Wolf and for Israel.

But that in no way shape or form should take away from this team’s accomplishment. This will make Wolf and the rest of the team stronger.

“We gave a fight,” Wolf said. “We just couldn’t keep up with them in overtime. I had a chance to win the game and I missed. I’ll take that on with me. We’re really disappointed because we really wanted to win the gold medal. I hope that one day it will happen. All in all, I am content with the result as no one thought it would be possible for us to take home a medal.”

No one thought heading into the event that Israel would come home from Crete with a medal, let alone play toe-to-toe with arguably the most talented team in the tournament.

The expectations were low as other than Yaacov, the talent level was not that of prior teams that included the likes of Deni Avdija and Yam Madar, Yovel Zoosman and Tamir Blatt as well as Noam Dovrat and Gilad Levy.

This team had plenty of young players who had not played many minutes during the season leading up to the Euro and one star in Yaacov who the team would most likely rely on for putting the ball into the basket.

And yes there was one more unknown - Wolf who had just received Israeli citizenship and came from Yale where he played sparingly in his freshman year.

Sure, Wolf had height and talent, but none of the players or coaches had ever seen him up close and personal on the court of play.

Yaacov made Wolf feel at home right from the get-go off the floor and that translated into something incredible on it. Their basketball abilities clicked from Day 1 and after a win over Turkey in the opening game of the tournament everyone could see exactly what the pair could do.

However, up next was Italy and Belgium as Israel fell to both and all looked doomed as it readied to face powerhouse Spain.

The Spaniards had walked through the group stage with a perfect record and were ready to send the blue-and-white down to the relegation zone where it would play for classification that could potentially send it down to Division B.

But Elad Hasin put together a game plan that kept Spain’s offense at bay as Israel recorded a stunning victory in the Round of 16 knockout game. Next up was Germany and Belgium as Israel with some extra help from Ron Zipper and Yuval Levin disposed of them in short order in the quarterfinal and semifinal, respectively.

From there it was on to the championship game, but in order to beat France it had to be all hands on deck to help out the dynamic duo of Wolf and Yaacov - or as Wolf’s personal trainer and coach Stacey Moragne put it, the Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray of the Under-20 Championship.

While Zipper and Levin tried their best to make it an even fight to go along with Yaacov’s 31 points and Wolf’s 17 point and 16 rebounds double-double, it was just not enough.

Expectations were exceeded but that will never be a substitute for Wolf and Yaacov who left it all out on the Heraklion arena floor.

“Wolf and Yaccov are pros and leaders,” Hasin said. “They understand the game, they want to learn and make further strides. Wolf is just an incredible player and what he did was phenomenal. He cried as if he had been playing in the national team program for 15 years and Yaacov is playing as if he is 30 years old.

“I’m disappointed as we were so close, one possession, one free throw, but I am so proud. To come into this situation against a French team that won their games by so many points, these guys played for an entire country and gave it their all with a huge heart. We played against a great opponent, athletic and experienced.”

Yaacov also spoke about the final result and the path that the team had gone on together.

“This is really tough. We came so far and were so close, but I am so proud of the team. We did an incredible job and went on an amazing journey. I’m so happy to be a part of this team. I believed in the path that we took and that we proved to everyone that we were able to do much more than what was expected from us.”

As they say, next year is another year and both Yaacov and Wolf will be eligible to once again don the Israel jersey at the Under-20 European Championships. Up-and-coming guard Ban Saraf will also be available for the team and with that trio of players, the sky’s the limit. Zoosman took home the silver in 2017 and then won gold the following year so there is no reason to think that this current crop can’t do the same.

While Yaacov will now head to the senior Israel National Team, as may Wolf who could get a last-minute invite, their summers could only be just beginning ahead of what could be pivotal years for both. The former will be playing for ASVEL Villeurbanne in the Euroleague and the latter with a prominent role in his sophomore year at Yale.

However, as Wolf said, he is looking at what he gained now to help him out as he continues to grow as a man and player. The trials and tribulations down the wire in this game will no doubt be experiences that he will take forward with him along with all of the incredible moments he was able to face.

“Right now I am not concerned about my future, I did the best that I could and I hope that we can win the championship down the road. At this moment, I am focused on my career and this was an extraordinary experience for me that I wouldn’t trade in for anything in the world.”