Israel breezes into EuroBasket in style

With blend of youth and veterans, blue-and-white maintains perfect 4-0 qualification record

WITH THE leadership and skill of savvy veterans Guy Pnini (left) and Gal Mekel (right), Israel has reeled off four straight victories in its EuroBasket 2022 qualifying campaign. (photo credit: FIBA/COURTESY)
WITH THE leadership and skill of savvy veterans Guy Pnini (left) and Gal Mekel (right), Israel has reeled off four straight victories in its EuroBasket 2022 qualifying campaign.
(photo credit: FIBA/COURTESY)
Israel is going to its 14th straight EuroBasket tournament, a streak that began in 1993, and that is definitely no small achievement.
The fact that it is heading to the competition is perhaps not as much of a surprise as how it accomplished the feat – going 4-0 thus far and clinching with two qualification group games to spare.
The blue-and-white went into the Valencia bubble with high expectations after winning its first two games against Poland on the road and Romania at home. In what should have been two more home clashes, coach Oded Katash had to pack his team up and head to Spain in order to face Spain and Poland yet again.
There was some concern and a bit of melancholy that Israel would not be able to play in front of a partisan crowd, but it met the expectations that were set from the outset and punched its ticket to EuroBasket 2022.
One of the best things about this version of the Israeli team is that it’s a terrific mix of veterans and youngsters along with versatile players who can feature in a number of positions.
But above all, this team really loves to play with each other. The players genuinely enjoy each other’s company, as Tomer Ginat who is playing in France this season explained.
“It’s a great feeling and we are a very special team. We really enjoy playing with each other and to be able to advance to the EuroBasket with a 4-0 record is really something else.”
It’s not easy to play as a team – just look at the Israel national soccer team. It’s quite a feat to throw together a group of guys, wave a magic wand and say “Abracadabra,” but in the case of this squad that’s all that Katash has to do, according to captain Gal Mekel.
“We're very proud of what we achieved and remain unbeaten. The strength of this team is that we're a team, a family, great chemistry with lots of young and promising talent.”
“It’s fun to be on the National Team and with a lot of young players,” said an upbeat Guy Pnini. “I want to try to help them as much as I can both on and off the court… for me it’s an opportunity to enjoy basketball. I am happy to be here and it’s fun.”
One of the keys to the success of this team is that the veteran players, Pnini at 37 years old and Mekel, who has played in the NBA and in Europe for many years, are a guiding light to the younger guys. Without having those two players perhaps the team would be a lot different and Katash knows it.
“Huge credit to Guy and Gal. They are leaders for the younger players but it’s also their abilities on and off of the court. The young guys will continue to gain experience as we still have time until the EuroBasket and we want to continue this process in the next window of games.”
The vets, Pnini and Mekel, certainly demonstrated what they can do on the court. Pnini, who will be 39 when the EuroBasket tips off in September 2022, knows that his playing in the tournament will be in the hands of a higher authority.
“You never know, but if my body feels good we will see. But for me my goal was to get Israel to the EuroBasket. God will decide what will be in 2022.”
Katash would be more than happy to welcome Pnini to any National Team that he is in charge of, especially after the 2014 Euroleague champion continues to hit big shot after big shot. His massive triple with 46 seconds left to put Israel up 76-72 against Poland was a thing of beauty, “Everybody knows he was going to take the shot and nobody can stop it, that’s why he is so great. If it is my decision, Guy will always be on the National Team.”
Pnini wasn’t interested in collecting accolades following the game.
“We knew Poland is a great team and it was very important for us to finish the job and to advance to the EuroBasket.”
Earlier in the week, Katash’s crew disposed of Spain 95-87 thanks to an 18-point comeback and Jake Cohen explained how that victory showed what this version of the blue-and-white was made of.
“It’s no small thing to come back from that deficit, it’s just a really big win and I’m really proud of the guys. I’m really happy and it feels really good. We have a lot of younger players on this team and they all showed a lot of character and a lot of heart. Hopefully, we are gaining more respect for Israeli basketball.”
Although the EuroBasket is a ways away, Mekel is certain that Israel will battle to make sure the disappointment of 2017 when the Holy Land hosted one of the groups at Yad Eliyahu in Tel Aviv will be far away and in the rearview mirror.
“For sure we will fight for every game in order to reach deep in the tournament.”
However, as deep as Mekel wants to go, Katash is already setting a specific target for his team.
“We want to get better. It’s a process we began three years ago and we just want to keep improving. We have time until the EuroBasket, but we can dream of the quarterfinals and it would be great if we can accomplish that.”
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at [email protected]