Italians spoil Israel’s run at Nokia

Momentum from Montenegro win vanishes as nat’l team falls 81-76

Basketball (photo credit: Associated Press)
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Israel’s hopes of reaching the European Championships for a 10th straight time suffered a significant blow on Tuesday after an 81-76 defeat to Italy at the Nokia Arena.
The national team entered the game in high spirits after an important victory over Montenegro on Saturday, but trailed throughout Tuesday’s encounter and seriously complicated its situation in Group A of EuroBasket 2011 qualification.
Montenegro claimed a 90-84 victory at Latvia on Tuesday to take sole possession of first place with a 4-1 record, with Israel in second position one game back.
The winners of the three qualifying groups as well as the two best second place teams will automatically qualify for the European Championships, meaning Israel will now have to either win its three remaining games, including away at Montenegro, to finish top of the group or hope for favors from the other groups to finish among the best runners-up.
“This is an unpleasant moment in the campaign,” said Israel coach Arik Shivek, whose team was outrebounded for the fourth time in five games. “This defeat sets us back to step one. It is a shame we lost, but we have to admit that they controlled the game from start to finish.
“We shouldn’t have lost at home, but now we will need to balance it out with another road win. We have already proven we are a strong team and I hope we will prove it again next week.”
Omri Casspi led Israel once more, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, with Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin adding 19 and 15 points, respectively.
Especially disappointing was the national team’s three-point shooting.
Israel entered the game averaging 50 percent, the highest among the 15 teams in the qualifiers, but shot just six of 20 on Tuesday night.
“We are all disappointed,” Halperin said. “We didn’t play well in the first half and we paid for it. We need to rebound from this defeat with a win in Latvia. The next two games are a must for us.”
Israel visits Latvia next Monday before hosting Finland three days later and wrapping up its campaign on the road at Montenegro.
Andrea Bargnani scored a game-high 26 points for Italy, which won despite scoring 24 percent (7 of 29) from beyond the arc.
Marco Belinelli added 14 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the visitors, who shot an impressive 24 of 34 from two-point range.
Italy opened the game with an 8-0 run, with Bargnani scoring at will.
Israel had no answer for the Toronto Raptors star and his 10 first period points gave the visitors a 22-17 lead after 10 minutes.
After a quiet first quarter, Casspi scored six straight points to start the second frame, bringing the blue-andwhite within two points (25-23).
Tal Burstein’s lay-up seconds later tied the score, but just when it seemed Israel would move into the lead, the visitors struck back, a recurring occurrence throughout the game.
Belinelli’s basket opened a sevenpoint cushion (34-27) midway through the period, only for Israel to close within a single point (36-35) once more just over a minute later after a Burstein three.
Israel would score just two points in the final three minutes of the first half, however, and Italy had a promising 48- 39 gap at the break.
Matters would only get worse for the hosts at the start of the third quarter, with a Bargnani dunk after an offensive rebound increasing the margin to 14 points (55-41).
A Marco Mordente three extended the Italians lead to 69-54, but Israel continued to hang around with 10 minutes to play after scoring the final six points of the quarter (69-60).
A Burstein jumper three minutes into the final quarter brought Israel within seven points (72-65), but the hosts struggled to come much closer.
Shivek’s men stopped Italy’s offense late in the game, only to miss wideopen shots and turn over the ball at the other end.
In the final minutes of the encounter, Israel finally managed to close within striking distance, with Eliyahu’s basket with 1:26 to play bringing the team within one possession (76-73).
However, after another offensive board, Bargnani put Italy safely ahead yet again and Israel fell to a costly defeat.