Israelis control their EuroBasket destiny

With two group games left, blue-and-white men and women both on brink of qualification.

311_Eurobasket qualifier (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_Eurobasket qualifier
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The Israeli men can take a significant step towards a 10th straight qualification to the European Championships with a victory over Finland at the Nokia Arena on Thursday night in the national team’s penultimate EuroBasket 2011 qualifier.
Two hours before the tip-off in Tel Aviv, the women’s national team can book its place in next summer’s EuroBasket tournament with win over Latvia at the Zisman Arena in Ramat Gan.
A triumph for the men’s side against Finland followed by a victory at Montenegro in its final qualifier on Sunday will guarantee Arik Shivek’s team first position in Group A. However, should results in other groups go its way, Israel could all but book its flight to Lithuania for next summer even before the tip-off of its game in Montenegro.
After significantly improving its point differential with a 36-point win at Latvia on Monday, Israel is primed for another big triumph over rock-bottom Finland. Not only would that assure it a top-two finish in the group, but it would also go a long way to guaranteeing that Israel is among the two best runners-up in qualification, both of whom will also advance automatically for the EuroBasket tournament.
With Poland, Bulgaria and Georgia, who are battling for second position in Group C, already all having three losses to their names, point differential could end up deciding if Israel is among the best runners-up, assuming, of course, it ends its group in second place.
At the moment, the blue-and-white’s point differential is considerably better than that of all the Group C contenders, meaning a rout over Finland would put the team on the brink of qualification.
“We have arrived at our second to last qualifier and this is the time to look at the situation in the other groups,” Shivek said on Wednesday.
“However, we must first focus on ourselves and on the task on hand. This is our last home game of the campaign against a team that beat us.”
Finland claimed its only win of the campaign so far against Israel, beating Shivek’s men 84-83 in Espoo. The Finns also gave Italy a real run for its money on Monday, coming back from an 18- point halftime deficit to lead in the final minute, before eventually succumbing to the superior visitors.
Finland has had far less success away from home, losing its last two road games to Latvia and Montenegro by 20 points each. However, considering the importance of the margin of victory, Israel guard Tal Burstein has no intention of underestimating the floundering Finns.
“We are all aware of the importance of this match and after our defeat in Finland we know we can’t afford to take them lightly,” Burstein said. “People are speaking about the margin of victory, but we first have to win the game.”
Israel’s women need just one more win from their remaining two qualifiers to advance to a third straight European Championship, and after such an impressive campaign to date, will be confident of wrapping-up their progress with a home victory over Latvia.
After winning its first three qualifiers, Israel came tantalizingly close to securing a top-two finish in Serbia on Monday, losing 70-68 after Liad Suez Karni’s miss at the buzzer.
“We almost booked our place in the championships with a win over Serbia, but despite the disappointment we have our fate in our hands and I hope we can advance already on Thursday,” Israel coach Eli Rabi said.
Star-guard Shay Doron, who leads all players in qualification with 21.8 points per game, is optimistic the team will beat Latvia in Ramat Gan.
“If we play good team basketball there is no reason we shouldn’t defeat Latvia,” Doron said. “I hope Zisman Arena will be full because the support will only help us to win.”