Blue-and-white advances to under-20 final

Israeli youth eye first European title after routing France to set up duel with host Greece.

Israel players celebrate yesterday after advancing to the under-20 European Championship final in Crete, Greece. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel players celebrate yesterday after advancing to the under-20 European Championship final in Crete, Greece.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel faces host Greece for the under-20 European Championship title in Crete on Sunday night, aiming to win the event for the first time in its history.
The blue-and-white has reached the final twice before, losing to Slovenia both in 2000 and 2004.
This year’s side entered the competition with few expectations, with most of the roster having little BSL experience.
Israel’s initial target was to ensure it isn’t relegated to Division B, in which it played between 2010 and 2012.
It has achieved a lot more than that over the past eight days, not only reaching the final with a perfect record after thrashing France 74-52 in Saturday’s semifinal, but giving Israeli basketball many reasons for optimism along the way.
Israel entered Saturday’s semifinal as an underdog against a France team that beat a strong Serbia side by 19 points in the quarterfinals.
But coach Oded Katash’s game-plan was perfectly implemented by his players, with the blue-and-white dominating the contest from the start. Tamir Blatt’s three-pointer gave Israel its first double-digit lead (16-6) of the night, which the team still held (21-11) after 10 minutes.
France cut the deficit to three points (24-21) midway through the second quarter, but it would come no closer, with Israel replying with an 11-2 run to reestablish a double-digit advantage (35-23).
France was completely lost for answers in the second half and Israel improved to 6-0 in Crete, winning its games by an average 16.7 points.
Israel finished Group C with three wins from three games after beating Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, before defeating Italy and Iceland in the knockout rounds to set up the meeting with France.
Greece will be the favorite in the final after defeating Spain 77-56 in the second semi, but coach Katash is confident his players can go all the way.
“We stuck to our game plan and I’m really proud of our players. To reach such a level of execution is truly amazing,” said Katash, who was notified while in Crete last week that Hapoel Eilat has chosen not to extend his contract.
“The whole of this team is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Nineteen-year-old center Daniel Koperberg, who averaged a mere 4.5 minutes per game for Maccabi Haifa last season, scored 27 points on 13-of-16 from the field on Saturday while also grabbing nine rebounds. Netanel Artzi, who played for Hapoel Gilboa/Galil in the second division last season, added 15 points.
Tamir Blatt, son of coach David Blatt, continued his superb tournament with 10 points and 14 assists. Blatt, who played for Hapoel Tel Aviv last season before joining Hapoel Holon earlier this month, is ranked sixth in the tournament with 17.0 points per game, while leading the event in assists with an average of 10.7.
“This is an amazing feeling. I can’t describe it,” said Blatt. “We will give everything we have in the final. We are coming to take the gold.”
On TV: Under-20 European Championship final: Israel vs Greece (live on Sport5 at 9:15 p.m.)