Lackluster effort against Macedonia sends Sherf's boys to 82-79 loss, group cellar.
By ALLON SINAI
A mere two days ago, Israel's players and staff were speaking aloud of reaching the quarterfinals of the EuroBasket tournament in Poland.
However, the national team will be making its way back home as early as Thursday after it suffered a bitterly disappointing 82-79 loss to Macedonia on Tuesday and Greece defeated Croatia 76-68.
After giving its all but still losing to Croatia in Monday's tournament opener, Israel struggled throughout the must-win game against Macedonia, looking lethargic and bewildered for most of the 40 minutes.
Tzvika Sherf's men never really found their footing on Tuesday, allowing Macedonia to dictate the rhythm of play and maintain a slender lead for the majority of the encounter.
Since EuroBasket 1993, Israel had finished among the top 12 in seven straight European Championships, but the run came to an end on Tuesday and Sherf had no complaints.
"This is a sad day for Israeli basketball," said Sherf, who has guided the team in eight European Championships, but has yet to lead it to a single quarterfinal berth.
"We didn't deserve to win. We didn't play well and Macedonia played better than us."
Israel can move into a tie on points with Croatia or Macedonia with a surprise win in its final Group A game against Greece on Wednesday.
However, both Croatia and Macedonia own the first tiebreaker over the blue-and-white, having each beaten the team, meaning Israel will finish bottom of the group regardless of Wednesday's results.
After a poor performance against Croatia, Tal Burstein and Yotam Halperin starred for the team on Tuesday, but to no avail. Burstein led the side with 25 points, hitting all four of his attempts from beyond the arc.
"We are very disappointed," Burstein said. "We knew this was the key game, but I guess that in certain minutes we just wanted it too much.
We rebounded poorly again and we didn't deserve to win."
Israel's weak paint play allowed Macedonia to grab 14 offensive rebounds, just a day after Croatia hauled in 17 offensive boards.
Halperin added 20 points for the national team, with Lior Eliyahu contributing 12 points and six rebounds.
"We really wanted to win and we worked very hard, but we just didn't do the small things that win games," Halperin said.
"We played right into their hands," Eliyahu added. "We were under a lot of pressure and we failed to channel it in the right directions."
Pero Antic led Macedonia, scoring 19 points, with Jeremiah Massey adding 15 points.
Israel looked tired from the start, and Antic's two consecutive three-pointers gave the Macedonians an early 6-1 lead.
After his poor showing against Croatia on Monday, Halperin found his range on Tuesday, scoring 10 points in less than six minutes to keep the national team in touch with Macedonia.
Amit Tamir's three gave Israel a 19-17 lead after 10 minutes, but at no stage did Sherf's men threaten to open a significant lead, and Massey's solid play helped the Macedonians take the initiative and open a 37-30 gap.
A 9-3 run to end the half meant the blue-and-white trailed by a single point at the break (40-39), but the national team continued to look drowsy after the interval and allowed its opponent to set the pace.
Riste Stefanov's layup opened a 50-43 lead and Israel trailed 60-55 with 10 minutes to play.
Macedonia remained in control at the beginning of the fourth quarter and Vojdan Stojanovski's three gave the team a 66-57 margin. With time running out, Israel employed a full-court press and it paid dividends immediately. A Burstein three followed by an Eliyahu basket brought the side within two points (72-70) with 3.15 minutes to play.
The score remained tight for the remainder of the game, but Israel just couldn't regain the lead.
Raviv Limonad's basket with 35 seconds to play closed the deficit to a single point (77-76), renewing the team's hope. However, Tamir turned the ball over with 13 seconds remaining as Israel fell to a second straight defeat and can already begin packing its bags for the flight home.
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