Bittersweet basketball qualification finish for Israel

Blue-and-white falls to Serbia, dashing hopes of World Cup berth, but future of Israeli hoops is bright.

With a strong mix of veterans such as Guy Pnini (left) and young talent, like Deni Avdija (right), Israel had an up-and-down qualification campaign, which ultimately saw the-blue-and-white miss out on a spot in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
With a strong mix of veterans such as Guy Pnini (left) and young talent, like Deni Avdija (right), Israel had an up-and-down qualification campaign, which ultimately saw the-blue-and-white miss out on a spot in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Israel’s dream of advancing to the FIBA World Cup this summer in China came to an end as the blue-and-white fell to Serbia 97-76 on Sunday night in a one-sided affair.
The host Serbs raced out to a first-quarter lead and never looked back at the Aleksandar Nikolic Hall in Belgrade. Vladimir Lucic scored 22 points to lead Serbia while Dragan Milosavljevic added 20 points and Milos Teodosic chipped in with 11 points and handed out nine assists in the victory.
Jake Cohen led Israel with 16 points, T.J. Cline scored 12 points as Deni Avdija, Iftach Ziv and Idan Zalmanson all added 10 points for coach Oded Katash’s squad.
Milosavljevic scored 18 of his points in the first half while Teodosic helped out in taking a 49-33 lead after 20 minutes.
Serbia continued to pour on the offense in the second half as Lucic and Teodosic dominated the floor and scored at will as Cohen tried in vain to keep Israel close, but eventually capitulated to a superior side on its home court.
Despite falling in its final qualification game, Israel had a quality World Cup qualifying campaign in which certain goals were achieved. Although the blue-and-white ended with a mediocre record of 5-7, Katash’s men went into their last game with a chance to advance to the big tournament this summer. That’s why the end result of the competition was bittersweet.
The campaign
The first half of the qualifying campaign saw Israel fall twice to a better Greece team, defeat Great Britain both and at home and on the road while splitting its games against Estonia. The blue-and-white’s 3-3 record allowed it to advance to the next round, where it faced three more teams; Germany, Georgia and Serbia.
The Israelis fell at home to a tough Georgia squad, a team that they have always had trouble with and then three days later came up a hair short in Germany where NBA star Dennis Schroder scored 30 points.
However, all Israel needed to do in order to shock the Germans in Leipzig was to make sure Tomer Ginat’s second free throw hit the rim with less than a second left on the game clock and time would expire giving the blue-and-white the surprise victory. But Ginat missed the rim, Schroder sent an inbounds pass to Max Kleber who put home an alley-oop and sent the contest into overtime where the hosts blew away Katash’s charges.
In the next window of games Israel defeated Serbia in Tel Aviv in what was a solid victory, but fell in Tbilisi against Georgia. Tamir Blatt had a chance to win the game in regulation but his three-point attempt came up short, sending the game into overtime where Israel fell once again.
Last Thursday Israel took down Germany in Tel Aviv giving it a chance to advance to the World Cup after Serbia lost in Estonia, but with Euroleague reinforcements and at a packed Aleksandar Nikolic Hall, Israel was totally overmatched in Belgrade in a game that was never close.
The positives
Katash was able to reinvigorate an Israel squad that disappointed at the 2017 European Championships in a group that took place in Tel Aviv under Erez Edelstein.
The new coach turned over almost the entire roster and began rebuilding from the ground up after the success of the Israel youth national teams. In came Blatt, Yovel Zoosman, Cohen, Ginat, Cline, Bar Timor, Golan Gutt and Avdija as part of the 26 different players who took part in the qualification tournament.
A solid base of players was established and can be counted on going forward when 2021 European Championship qualifying begins in the fall.
The expectations
When this past campaign began, Israel was not expected to even come close to qualifying for the World Cup as it started to build for the future with the goal of advancing to the next European Championships. This goal is now at the forefront for Israel basketball and anything less will be considered a failure.
Katash is well aware of that, but with a new pool of players who understand their roles he can be optimistic going forward.
The great hope
Avdija, who is ticketed to be an NBA lottery pick in the 2020 draft, will play a prominent role for the national team program. After playing the last two games against Germany and Serbia, there will be a lot riding on the 18-year-old phenom. Avdija will feature for the Under-20 Israel National Team this summer when it looks to defend its title in Tel Aviv and will most probably take on an expanded role with Maccabi Tel Aviv next season.
The Basketball Without Borders MVP performed well in the pair of contests while scoring 10 points in Belgrade in the last game. Katash always shows confidence in his players and that is no different with Avdija.
The challenges
Every other team will have the same issue that Israel has, namely how to circumvent the roster limitations due to Euroleague and NBA games being played during the qualification windows.
For Israel this was less of a problem, but when other teams can play with a bigger complement of players, it puts Israel at a major disadvantage, like we just saw against Serbia in the final qualifier.
That being noted, Israel has to make sure to win the games that are winnable and not throw them away in crunch time like it did in Germany and in Georgia. Had the blue-and-white won those two games, it would have been in the World Cup regardless of the result against Serbia.
But as the saying goes, you can’t cry over spilled milk. Israel must learn from the recent campaign and take those lessons forward to the European qualifying tournament, where it can certainly make an impact and ride the youth movement forward.
All in all, while the margin of error is certainly slim for Israel, the future is bright.