Israel bounces back at home in a big way

Blue-and-white hold off Montenegro 77-73; Casspi scores 30

Casspi national team 311 (photo credit: AP)
Casspi national team 311
(photo credit: AP)
Israel took a significant step towards finishing first in its EuroBasket 2011 qualifying group on Saturday night, claiming a hard-fought 77-73 victory over previously unbeaten Montenegro at Nokia Arena.
Montenegro, which had won all 13 of its official games since entering international competition two years ago, led by as many as eight points in the third period and was still ahead with three minutes remaining in the game.
However, a sensational 30-point performance by Omri Casspi ensured Israel was never too far behind and the blue-and-white clinched the win after holding the visitors to 12 points in the final quarter.
“It was very important for us to win this game, especially after the disappointing defeat to Finland,” said Casspi, who is slowly but surely establishing his place as the star of the side.
“It was crucial to get the game off to a good start and I’m happy I did well. We need to maintain this focus against Italy and display the same energy and motivation.”
Israel hosts Italy at Nokia on Tuesday and, after an unexpected slipup in Finland last week, will be desperate to remain in the hunt for first place in Group A with a victory. The winners of the three qualifying groups and the two best second place teams will automatically qualify for next summer’s European Championships.
Lior Eliyahu added 17 points and Yotam Halperin scored 10 for Israel, which won despite shooting just 38.5 percent from the field and being outrebounded 43-30.
Nikola Pekovic had 20 points for the visitors, with Goran Jeretin scoring 16.
A Casspi dunk to start the game was a sign of things to come, but the hosts struggled to open a significant lead.
A Yuval Naimi triple with 90 seconds to go in the quarter extended the gap to eight points (26-18), but the Montenegrins scored the final four points of the frame to bring the visitors within touching distance once more (26-22).
A Halperin three to begin the second period gave Israel its biggest lead of the half, only for the visitors to go on an 8- 0 run to move ahead, with Pekovic tormenting the locals under the basket.
The blue-and-white had no answer for the Minnesota Timberwolves’ new recruit, as Pekovic ended the half with 12 points, hitting both his field goals and going a perfect eight of eight from the line.
Montenegro also managed to hold Casspi scoreless in the second quarter and Suad Sehovic’s three-pointer with 19 seconds remaining in the half sent the teams into the locker room tied at 40-40.
The visitors took control in the second half by disrupting Israel’s rhythm on offense and frustrating the hosts under the baskets.
A Pekovic lay-up maintained Montenegro’s eight-point gap (56-48) with three-and-a-half minutes to play in the period, but Casspi scored nine points in the final three minutes of the frame and his three brought the national team within two points (61-59) with 10 minutes to play.
Both teams struggled to score at the start of a tense fourth quarter and the game would remain tight until the very end.
An Eliyahu dunk gave the hosts a 68- 66 advantage, but with two minutes remaining there was nothing to separate the sides, with Jeretin’s free throws tying the score at 72-72.
However, the final two minutes would belong to Israel, with Montenegro losing its way without the fouled-out Pekovic. Casspi and Halperin scored from the charity stripe to seal the win.
“I’m delighted we won,” Israel coach Arik Shivek said. “Casspi was huge. He took responsibility and also used his teammates when he should have.”