Israel improves to 2-0 in EuroBasket qualifying with 22-point victory over Latvia.
By ALLON SINAI
Israel fans came to the Nokia Arena for two reasons on Sunday night – to watch the national team win and to see Omri Casspi display why he was the first of his countrymen to play in the NBA.They got both.Israel maintained its perfect start to its EuroBasket 2011 qualifying campaign on Sunday, thrashing Latvia 110-88 to edge slightly closer to a 10th straight qualification for the European Championships.After defeating Italy 79-71 on the road in its qualifying opener last week, Israel wanted to cement its place as one of the top two teams in Group A and it did so in emphatic fashion against Latvia.The blue-and-white opened a 19- point lead after 10 minutes (37-18) and despite allowing the Latvians back to within eight points in the third period went on a 14-1 run to clinch the victory.After fouling out and scoring just nine points in the win over Italy, Casspi burst into life on Sunday, leading Israel with 21 points and eight rebounds.Casspi was one of six Israel players in double-figures, with points coming from all around Arik Shivek’s roster on Sunday.AdvertisementYotam Halperin had 18 points and five assists, David Bluthenthal scored 17, Lior Eliyahu contributed 16, Tal Burstein got 14 and Guy Pnini added 11.“We didn’t know what to expect from the game, but we played the basketball we wanted to play,” Halperin said. “Our percentage from three-point range was amazing and we played beautiful and enjoyable basketball. We must keep our feet on the ground because we are facing a much tougher game at Finland. We have still got a lot of work to do before we qualify for Lithuania.”Israel will have little time to celebrate its victory over Latvia as it will fly out to Helsinki on Monday ahead of Wednesday’s qualifier at Finland.“We are pleased with the result and with the way we achieved it,” said Shivek, whose team dished out an impressive 32 assists and shot 16 of 25 from three-point range.“We are at 2-0, but Finland will be a really tough opponent and we will need to be extremely focused.”Rihards Kuksiks led Latvia with 24 points, with Janis Strelnieks adding 17.Yogev Ohayon scored the first points of the night for Israel, but the national team’s hopes of opening an early significant lead were quickly dashed by the Latvians, who had no intention of going down without a fight.Nevertheless, it only seemed a matter of time until the hosts would pull ahead and in the final five minutes of the first quarter they built a doubledigit cushion they would hold on to until halftime.Halperin, Bluthenthal and Casspi all found their range and two straight three-pointers by Burstein and Pnini to end the first period meant Israel outscored Latvia 21-6 in the final four minutes of the quarter, opening a 37-18 margin.The visitors edged closer at the start of the second stanza, but whenever Latvia threatened to close within single digits, Israel answered back with another basket from beyond the arc and the hosts took a 55-40 lead into the break after shooting 70 percent (7 of 10) from three-point range.The comfortable advantage seemed to affect Israel at the beginning of the second half, with Latvia showing far more urgency. As a result, the visitors would slowly eat away at the gap, with Ronalds Zakis dominating under the baskets and Kuksiks scoring at will from beyond the arc.Two straight threes by Kuksiks brought Latvia within eight points (65- 57) with four-and-a-half minutes to play in the third period, but the visitors would score just a single point in the next four minutes and Israel all but clinched the win.Halperin hit consecutive triples and a Casspi dunk brought the fans to their feet and gave the team a 79-58 lead, its biggest until that stage.Latvia cut the deficit to 16 points (79- 63) by the end of the period, but it never came close to mounting a comeback in the final quarter and Israel sailed to the easiest of victories.