Israel faces Montenegro in battle of Group A’s top-two

After its shocking defeat in Finland on Wednesday night, Israel hosts Montenegro at the Nokia Arena this weekend.

311_eurobasket (photo credit: Associated Press)
(photo credit: Associated Press)
After its shocking defeat in Finland on Wednesday night, Israel hosts Montenegro at the Nokia Arena on Saturday night in a game it can not afford to lose if it has any intention of remaining in the hunt for first position in EuroBasket 2011 qualifying group A.
The winners of the three qualifying groups and the two best second place teams will qualify automatically for next summer’s European Championships, and after Wednesday’s humbling experience in Finland, Israel could lose any realistic hope of finishing in first should it fail to beat Montenegro at home.
Montenegro improved to a perfect 3-0 on Wednesday with a 71-62 victory over Italy and has won all 13 of its official games since entering international competition in 2009.
The Montenegrins, who were previously part of the Serbia national team, were always considered to be Israel’s main rivals for top-position in the group, and despite the disappointing one-point defeat to the Finns, national coach Arik Shivek is optimistic his side has still got what it takes to win its group.
“There is no reason to vilify our team,” Shivek said. “We are a good team, but we just weren’t composed against Finland. We will be far more composed on Saturday and I hope we can beat Montenegro.”
Yotam Halperin (17.3 ppg) and Omri Casspi (15.7 ppg) continued their good form against Finland, combining for 35 points, but a poor team-effort on defense and offense, especially in the closing minutes, allowed Finland to get back into the game.
“We lost our concentration and made silly mistakes,” said center Yaniv Green, who will have plenty of work against Montenegro’s big-men on Saturday.
“We know how strong Montenegro is, but I believe we can make up for the defeat in Finland with a win on Saturday.”
Green will have an especially crucial role to play in defending Nikola Pekovic. The 24-year-old, who signed a 3 year, $13 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves earlier this summer, has averaged 21 points in 22 minutes in the campaign and is coming off a 28-point effort against Italy.
Vladimir Dasic, Vladimir Dragicevic and veteran Predrag Drobnjak can also all cause trouble in the paint for the under-sized Israelis, with naturalized Omar Cook and former Maccabi Tel Aviv player Goran Jeretin the side’s key guards.
“We knew the game in Finland would be tricky and had we won it we would have been relaxed ahead of the encounter against Montenegro,” said David Bluthenthal. “We need to lift our heads because we are facing a very important game.”
Meanwhile, Israel’s women’s team opened its EuroBasket qualifying campaign with a convincing victory on Thursday, thrashing Serbia 93-65 at Zisman Arena in Ramat Gan.
The national team, which dominated throughout the encounter, was led by Liron Cohen, who scored 26 points and passed seven assists, with Shay Doron adding 20 points and Meirv Dori contributing 14.
The top two teams in the group, which also includes Romania and Latvia, will advance to next summer’s European Championships, with Israel looking to progress to its third straight tournament.
“This is a dream start,” coach Ali Rabi said. “We never took our foot off the gas. The Serbians are much taller than us, but our girls showed a superb fighting spirit and implemented everything that we worked on in training.