Israel takes on Latvia at home

Coming off Italian triumph, blue-and-white expects to be tested.

Yotam Halperin 311 (photo credit: FIBA EUROPE Web Site)
Yotam Halperin 311
(photo credit: FIBA EUROPE Web Site)
Despite seeing his side take a significant step towards a 10th straight qualification for the European Championships by defeating Italy 79-71 on the road last week, Israel coach Arik Shivek knows his team has still got a long way to go before it can book its flight to Lithuania for next summer.
Israel opened its qualifying campaign with a convincing victory in Bari, but Shivek understands that a defeat against Latvia at the Nokia Arena on Sunday night will set the national team back to square one.
“I’ve learned over the years that you should never underestimate an opponent before a game,” said Shivek about Latvia, which is not expected to challenge for a top-two finish in Group A, but proved its worth by also beating Italy 69-68 last Thursday.
“The win in Italy was very important and very significant to the rest of our campaign,” said the Israeli coach. “At the end of the game even the Italians cheered us, appreciating the basketball we displayed. However, we must remember that this was just the first game out of eight and we must remain focused for Sunday. The pressure is on us now.”
What was especially impressive with Israel’s win in Italy was the fact that two of its biggest stars, Omri Casspi and Lior Eliyahu, played nowhere near their best basketball.
Casspi fouled out and had just nine points in 22 minutes, with Eliyahu being a complete non-factor, failing to score in five minutes on court.
However, Yotam Halperin scored 16 points to lead a team effort, epitomized by the fact that Israel outrebounded the far taller Italians 42-40.
“It was a team victory,” Casspi said. “It is superb to start the campaign with a win at Italy, but we must remember this was just the first game and there is still plenty to do. I felt the game was flowing for the other players so I didn’t want to force myself on the game. The most important thing is that the team won. If we continue like this against Latvia we will be in the right direction.”
After being thrashed 96-66 by a strong Montenegro side in its qualifying opener, Latvia bounced back impressively with a home win over Italy.
The Latvians are playing in the qualifiers without their big star, Golden State Warriors center, Andris Biedrins, but have still got weapons with which they can hurt Israel.
Playmaker Janis Strelnieks, just 20- years-old, has averaged 12.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in Latvia’s first two qualifiers and stopping him will be key to Israel’s chances of success.
“We recorded a big win, but there is still plenty of work to be done,” said Tal Burstein, who will share defensive duties on Strelnieks.
“We need to keep our feet on the ground and regain our focus for the game against Latvia.”
Israel limited Italy to an embarrassing five of 30 from three-point range and a similar effort against the free-shooting Latvians will be crucial.
Latvia has hit just nine of 41 shots from beyond the arc in its first two qualifiers and a similar percentage at the Nokia Arena on Sunday will give Israel an outstanding chance of winning.
“We began the campaign in the best way possible,” said Guy Pnini, who played an important role in the victory over Italy, both on the offensive and defensive ends.
“After a month of preparations we were all desperate to play for real and we are happy it went well. But that is in the past now and we are focusing on Latvia.
The coach brought us back down to earth and we know we are facing an excellent team which gave us trouble in the past.
“We will not underestimate them and we will be ready. There was something special in every national team I played for, but there is something extra special about this one.”
On TV: EuroBasket 2011 qualifying: Israel vs Latvia (live on Channel 1 at 8 p.m.)