The national team has won all five of its games in the last-chance tournament to date, and finds itself comfortably ahead in Group C.
By ALLON SINAI
Israel will advance to next week's EuroBasket 2007 additional qualifying tournament in Menorca, Spain, as long as it doesn't lose to Belgium by more than 19 points on Saturday night.
The national team has won all five of its games in the last-chance tournament to date, and finds itself comfortably ahead in Group C, thanks to its 85-66 victory over the Belgians at the Nokia Arena.
Israel needs to finish first in group play in order to qualify for the three-team competition in Menorca, which begins on Wednesday. The winner of the three-team contest will advance to EuroBasket 2007 to begin in Spain on September 3.
Lior Eliyahu, who missed Israel's 68-63 victory over Ukraine on Wednesday to attend his brother's wedding, rejoined the team on Thursday and will likely play a key role against Belgium.
Eliyahu, who has averaged 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in four games, outplayed Belgian star Alex Hervelle when the players first met 10 days ago and will be aiming for a similar outcome in the match-up on Saturday.
"The Belgians' goal is to win by more than 19 points so we must remain calm and even try and win the game," Eliyahu said on Thursday.
"It was very strange watching Israel's game at my brother's wedding. People were congratulating me as if I was the groom," he added.
Ido Kozikaro, who filled Eliyahu's shoes successfully against Ukraine, scoring 12 points and grabbing nine rebounds, knows that he will likely play less with the forward's return to the team, but is nevertheless happy to have him back in the squad.
"Lior is a very important player, but naturally I got more playing time and contributed more than usual because of his absence," Kozikaro said. "I want Eliyahu to return to the team as soon as possible and I'm looking forward to playing with him again."
Coach Tzvika Sherf guided Israel to the European Championships via the last-chance tournament two years ago and is keen for the team to maintain its perfect record ahead of the deciding qualifiers next week.
"We're aiming to win the game in Belgium," Sherf said. "This is a road game and if we won't be prepared we will struggle."
Yotam Halperin, who has averaged 21.4 points per game in the last-chance tournament, led Israel in scoring in four of the side's five games and has come up with the goods whenever called upon.
"Halperin hasn't missed a single training session, he's always serious and composed," Sherf said. "He can become a senior member of the Maccabi Tel Aviv squad next season."
Israel will likely face Bosnia and Macedonia in the additional qualifying tournament. Bosnia faces last-placed Hungary on Thursday and will advance with a win. Macedonia plays winless Sweden and isn't expected to have any trouble defeating the weak Scandinavians and progressing.
Yaniv Green has gone almost unnoticed in recent weeks, leading Israel under the baskets, scoring nine points and grabbing 8.2 rebounds per game.
"A 19-point advantage should be sufficient, but stranger things have happened," Green said. "We will be determined and composed and will be aiming to win the game so that we don't get stressed if we suddenly trail by 10 points."
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