Flat finish costs Israel dearly in Montenegro

Blue-and-white hand over first game of Euro competition to rival host.

MONTENEGRO’S VLADIMIR MIHAILOVIC (photo credit: Israel Basketball Association)
(photo credit: Israel Basketball Association)
Israel’s players will be kicking themselves after dropping an eight-point fourth quarter lead to lose 75-69 to Montenegro in their EuroBasket 2013 qualifying opener in Podgorica on Wednesday night.
The national team overcame an erratic first half to outscore Montenegro 22-11 in the third quarter and open a promising 56-48 margin.
Israel still held an eightpoint gap two minutes into the final frame, but would score just eight more points in the remainder of the night, effectively gifting the hosts the win by foolishly sending the Montenegrins to the free throw line for easy points in the closing stages.
“We knew this would be a tough game,” said Israel coach Arik Shivek. “We opened an eight-point lead in the second half, but made several mistakes, the biggest of which was allowing them back into the game.”
The only consolation for Israel, which hosts Estonia in the second of its 10 qualifiers on Saturday night, is the fact that it only lost by six points and will be confident of beating the Montenegrins by a greater margin and claiming the tiebreaker against its main rival for second position in Group A when they meet again in Tel Aviv in two weeks.
Perennial powerhouse Serbia is the firm favorite to win the group, which also includes the weaker Slovakia, Estonia and Iceland.
The top two teams from the six qualifying groups and the four best third-placed teams will make up the 16 sides who will join Spain, France, Russia, FYR of Macedonia, Lithuania, Greece, Great Britain and the hosts Slovenia in EuroBasket 2013.
Lior Eliyahu led Israel scorers with 22 points on Wednesday, hitting 10 of 14 field-goals, while Omri Casspi added 17 points and eight rebounds.
Yogev Ohayon showed why he has been named the team’s starting point guard with eight points, 10 rebounds and four assists, but Israel will need more players to step up in coming weeks.
“We really wanted to open the campaign with a win, but the victory slipped away and we missed a big opportunity,” Eliyahu said. “I hope we can correct this mistake later on.
There is still a long way to go in the campaign and we will work hard to get back on track.”
Israel got off to the start it hoped for in Podgorica, taking an 8-2 lead after less than two minutes following a Casspi basket.
However, the hosts bounced back with a 7-0 run, with Blagota Sekulic’s tremendous dunk from an offensive rebound putting the Montenegrins in front.
A Guy Pnini four-point play to end the first period ensured Israel had the edge (20-17) after 10 minutes, largely thanks to the fact that Montenegro failed to hit any of its seven three-point attempts.
After 11 straight misses from beyond the arc, Suad Sehovic finally scored a three for the hosts to tie the score at 26-26 and Montenegro had a threepoint advantage (37-34) at the break after taking 12 offensive rebounds in the first half.
Coach Shivek spoke of the importance of controlling the boards before the game and he surely stressed the need to limit Montenegro’s second chances in his halftime talk as Israel didn’t allow a single offensive rebound in the third quarter.
Ohayon began to dictate the tempo from the backcourt and his nifty drive to the basket capped Israel’s 12-3 run to start the second half (46-40).
Ohayon found Eliyahu for two easy points to open an eight-point cushion (54-46) and the visitors led 56-48 with 10 minutes remaining.
A Casspi triple maintained the blue-and-white’s gap (59- 51) early in the fourth frame, but Nikola Ivanovic’s three brought the hosts within two points (63-61) and the momentum steadily shifted in the Montenegrins’ direction.
Sead Sehovic’s hit all three of his shots from the free-throw line with 1:30 to play to tie the score (69-69) following a rash foul by the otherwise impressive Alex Tyus and the hosts clinched the win from the line, with Israel failing to score a single point in the final 1:55 of the game.