Israel hopes to keep rolling against Italy

After big win against Montenegro, Casspi and co. aren’t letting up.

311_Euroasket Montenegro (photo credit: FIFA EUROPE Web site)
311_Euroasket Montenegro
(photo credit: FIFA EUROPE Web site)
After its important victory over Montenegro, Israel begins the second half of its EuroBasket 2011 qualifying campaign knowing its fate still remains well and truly in its hands.
The only blemish in the national team’s campaign to date is the disappointing defeat at Finland last Wednesday, with Arik Shivek’s men currently only trailing first-place Montenegro by point differential. Both sides have won three of their first four qualifiers in Group A.
The winners of the three qualifying groups as well as the two best second place teams will automatically qualify for the European Championships.
Israel knows it can all but guarantee its place in next summer’s tournament even before its final qualifier at the strong Montenegro should it win its next three games, beginning Tuesday against Italy at the Nokia Arena.
The blue-and-white began its campaign with an impressive win in Bari, a victory which propelled Shivek’s team while crushing Italy’s spirit.
Italy has arguably been the biggest disappointment of the 15 teams participating in the qualifiers, losing to Latvia and Montenegro, as well as Israel, while claiming its one and only win at home against Finland.
Toronto Raptors star Andrea Bargnani (19.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and New Orleans Hornets guard Marco Belinelli (15.5 ppg) have done their share, but Italy has gotten very little contribution from other players, with the team struggling to gel under the guidance of new coach Simone Pianigiani.
Italy has averaged just 67 points in its three defeats to date and is the worst three-point shooting team in the qualifiers, hitting just 25 percent of its 100 attempts.
Israel, on the other hand, has scored 87.3 points per game, second highest among the 15 teams, and has been nothing short of outstanding from beyond the arc, averaging 50%.
Nevertheless, there is no chance of complacency in the Israel camp ahead of Tuesday’s game, especially with the painful defeat to Finland still lingering.
“I’m sure the players learned their lesson and will not underestimate the Italians,” Shivek said.
“We have no time to relax and we have already put the big win over Montenegro behind us and are focusing on Italy.”
Italy, a traditional powerhouse in European basketball, failed to qualify for last summer’s EuroBasket tournament, the first time it has missed the event since 1961, and Pianigiani knows only a win at the Nokia Arena will keep alive the team’s outside chance of still reaching the European Championships.
“We saw Israel is a strong team in the game in Italy, but we have our backs against the wall and we have to win to keep our hopes alive,” Pianigiani said.
“We failed to slow Israel’s rhythm in the game in Italy and that won’t be easy to do in front of a packed Nokia.
We never thought we would lose three of our first four games, but we now must take it one game at a time and focus on our play.”
A superb 30-point performance by Omri Casspi was the key to Israel’s win over Montenegro, but the blue-and-white proved it is much more than a one-man team in the victory in Italy in which the Sacramento Kings forward was held to just nine points.
Yotam Halperin, who has scored in double-figures in all four of Israel’s games, led the team with 16 points in Bari, with David Bluthenthal and Yaniv Green also playing important roles.
“At home we should be able to beat any team,” Green said. “Italy is a tough opponent. We showed we learned from our mistakes against Finland in the win over Montenegro and we need to display the same composure against Italy as well.”