Red-hot Israel faces another must-win at Nokia

Blue-and-white looks to keep streak going against undefeated Montenegro.

LIOR ELIYAHU 370 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Less than 48 hours after claiming what has been heralded by some as one of the greatest victories ever by the national team, Israel hosts Montenegro at Nokia Arena on Thursday night in another encounter crucial to its hopes of qualifying for EuroBasket 2013.
After an erratic start to its 10-game qualifying campaign, Israel showed on Tuesday why the current roster is widely regarded as the most talented the blue-and-white has had in a generation when it dominated perennial powerhouse Serbia at Nokia on the way to a resounding 89-76 victory.
The win was Israel’s third straight after beginning the campaign with two consecutive defeats and took the blue-and-white up to second place in the standings at the halfway mark of the qualifying tournament.
The top two teams from the six qualifying groups and the four best third-placed teams will make up the 16 sides who will join Spain, France, Russia, FYR of Macedonia, Lithuania, Greece, Great Britain and hosts Slovenia in EuroBasket 2013.
However, with Montenegro currently holding a comfortable cushion at the top of Group A with a 5-0 record and both Serbia and Estonia currently tied with Israel at 3-2, the blue-and-white still has plenty of work to do to secure its progress to the European Championships for an 11th straight time.
“Serbia is one of the top five teams in Europe, but we were superb at both ends of the floor,” said Israel coach Arik Shivek.
“Lior [Eliyahu], Omri [Casspi] and Yogev [Ohayon] carried the team and that is their job.
“After losing our first two games we decided to make some changes and they have proven to be effective.
“The intensity of this tournament is so great that one week ago we were dejected in Iceland and now we are celebrating in Nokia.”
Israel lost 75-69 at Montenegro in its group opener two weeks ago, but the players will draw encouragement from the fact that they held an eight-point gap two minutes into the final frame in Podgorica before squandering a golden opportunity to claim a crucial road win.
The Montenegrins have gone on to win all their games since, including away at Serbia thanks to a mid-court buzzer-beating three-pointer.
Suad Sehovic leads Montenegro in points (16.2 ppg) and rebounds (6.4 rpg), but Luka Pavicevic’s team includes three more players who average more than 10 points per game, complicating Israel’s mission on Thursday.
Israel also has four players who average double figures, led by Omri Casspi (17.8 ppg) and Lior Eliyahu (15.8 ppg).
Casspi is ranked among the top 20 in seven different statistical categories, with his accuracy from three-point range (56.5%) perhaps his most impressive stat of all.
The Israel team as a whole has shot well in its first five qualifiers, with the blue-and-white leading all 31 teams in field-goal percentage (54.5%) and Casspi, Eliyahu and Alex Tyus all being ranked among the top six players in that category, with Tyus leading all players with an outstanding 70.7 percent (29 of 41).
“It was great to play in Yad Eliyahu after two years away. It was fun to come home,” Casspi said.
“I felt good and we felt good as a team. We are facing a tough game on Thursday, but we will be ready.”