EuroBasket: Close, but not close enough

Eliyahu scores 31 points but Israel loses 86-79 to Croatia in EuroBasket opener.

Lior Eliyahu 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Lior Eliyahu 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel pushed Croatia all the way in its EuroBasket opener on Monday, but was eventually edged 86-79 in Poznan, Poland by a superiorly talented team. Despite struggling in the first half, Israel trailed by just five points (42-37) at the break and surged into the lead in the third quarter. The game remained tight throughout the second half, but the Croats were better at the crucial moments. The national team can not afford to lick its wounds for long as on Tuesday it faces Macedonia in a game which will likely determine if it advances to the next round. Three of the four teams in the group will progress to the second group stage, so a single victory against Macedonia could well prove to be enough to ensure the side is still playing in the second week of the European Championships. "We need to lift ourselves because this is a disappointing loss," coach Tzvika Sherf said. "The game against Macedonia is nothing like the one against Croatia. We need to be ready and win the game in any way possible." Lior Eliyahu was superb on Monday, hitting 13 of 17 shots on his way to a career-best 31 points. Point guard Gal Mekel had an outstanding debut, scoring 16 points and controlling Israel's offense. Ido Kozikaro and Tal Burstein added 12 and 10 points, respectively, but the team was always going to struggle to win with Yotam Halperin scoring just five points. Former Maccabi Tel Aviv star Nikola Vujcic led Croatia with 21 points, with guards Roko Ukic, Marko Popovic and Davor Kus each scoring 13 points. "We played well and made the Croats look bad," said Kozikaro. "However, the better team won and we now need to focus on the game against Macedonia. We knew this would be a key game and we must win it." The Croats began the game with a hot hand from beyond the arc and led 6-0 within the first minute after two three-pointers. Kozikaro, who scored all his 12 points in the first half, was keeping Israel in the game and one his baskets closed the gap to 11-8. However, the national team paid a dear price for its poor rebounding and Nikola Vujcic's three-point move opened an 11 point margin (23-12).Croatia began to lose its scoring touch as the half progressed, but remained comfortably in front thanks to 13 offensive rebounds in the first two periods. Six straight Eliyahu points, capped by an elegant dunk, brought Israel within four points (33-29), and despite its under par defense and rebounding, Sherf's men were down by only five points at the break (42-37). Halperin's three gave the team its first lead of the night early in the third (50-48) and Burstein's triple opened a 55-51 lead. Vujcic came to his team's rescue when it needed him most, and his 14th point of the night made sure the score was tied at 59-59 entering the final period. The lead traded hands at the beginning of the fourth quarter, with Eliyahu and Mekel the stars of the show for Israel. However, Marko Popovic was unstoppable at the other end and maintained Croatia's slender lead throughout the period. Eliyahu edged the team within one possession with just under a minute to play (80-77), but that was as close as Israel would come and the team will have to rebound from the loss when it plays Macedonia on Tuesday.