By ALLON SINAI
Israel edged closer to the European Championship on Wednesday night after thrashing Belgium 85-66 at the Nokia Arena.
The win improved Israel's record in the EuroBasket 2007 last-chance tournament to 3-0 and more importantly put the team in an ideal position to claim first place in Group C.
The national team needs to finish top of its group to advance to a three-team competition in Madrid later this month from which the winner will qualify for the European Championships to be held in Spain at the beginning of September.
A sensational scoring performance by Yotam Halperin, who scored 29 points missing just one shot from the field, led an Israel team which had four players in double figures.
"A lot of players played well tonight, it wasn't just me," Halperin said after the game. "I felt good right from the start and just continued shooting."
Halperin, who also had six assists and six rebounds, was helped by Lior Eliyahu, who continued his excellent campaign by scoring 17 points and grabbing eight rebounds, with Meir Tapiro and Matan Naor adding 13 and 10 points respectively.
"I'm very pleased with the victory and we could have won by an even bigger margin," Israel coach Tzvika Sherf said after the game. "This was our best game of the campaign to date, but we must remain grounded because we haven't completed the job yet. We must defeat Denmark on Saturday and Ukraine next Wednesday for this win to have any importance."
Israel hosts Denmark in its final home game on Saturday and will face Ukraine and Belgium away from home on August 22 and 25, respectively.
Belgium, which won its first two games of the campaign, was led by Axel Hervelle, who scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
"I think we still have a chance to qualify," Belgium coach Eddy Casteels said. "Israel has still got to go to Ukraine and play us in Belgium. A 19 point loss was much worse than anything we expected."
A 5-0 Belgian run midway through the first period gave the visitors an early 12-7 lead. Israel, however, would soon break out of its scoring slump and was ahead by two points (14-12) after scoring seven unanswered points.
Hervelle's three pointer would quickly regain his side's lead, but a 14-2 Israel run to end the quarter put the hosts ahead once and for all.
Halperin scored eight of his team's final 14 points and ended the period with 15 points.
The hosts weren't content with their 28-17 lead after 10 minutes and would pull further ahead during the second quarter. Halperin's five points to start the second period gave Israel a 33-20 lead and seven points by Eliyahu extended the host's advantage to 42-24. Tapiro also scored Israel's final three points of the half and gave Israel a 22 point advantage (47-25) at the break.
The blue-and-white's outstanding defense in the first half was the key to the side's massive lead at the interval, with the Belgians only managing eight points in the second period and scoring just four of 18 attempts from the three-point range throughout the half.
Matan Naor's basket from beyond the arc a minute into the third quarter gave Israel its biggest margin of the game (50-27) and the hosts cruised for the remainder of the period.
Eliyahu's dunk from a Halperin assist with four minutes to go in the quarter (62-43) raised the Nokia Arena roof and Israel entered the final 10 minutes of the game ahead by 18 points (69-51).
Israel struggled slightly on offense at the start of the final period and a 12-6 run brought the visitors within just 12 points of their opponents (75-63). Lionel Bosco's layup after an Israel turnover midway through the final quarter capped the Belgians run, but six consecutive points for the hosts extended the side's already impressive lead and assured the team of its third straight win.
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