With 3 games to play, Israeli men face must-win in Latvia

Despite easy win last time, Shivek, Casspi not taking Latvians lightly.

YUVAL NAIMY (photo credit: FIBA EUROPE Web site)
(photo credit: FIBA EUROPE Web site)
After last week’s frustrating home defeat to Italy, Israel visits Latvia on Monday night in a game it simply cannot afford to lose.
With a resurgent Italy overtaking it in the standings on Friday, and with two losses already to its name, the national team has to win its next two EuroBasket 2011 qualifiers at Latvia and at home against Finland to maintain a reasonable chance of automatic qualification for next summer’s European Championships.
Israel can still finish at the top of Group A if it wins each of its remaining games.
But with a visit to top-of-the-table Montenegro still to come, coach Arik Shivek already has one eye on the two other qualifying groups, knowing his side’s best chance of direct qualification will be by ending its campaign as one of the two best second place teams.
The tight battle for the runner-up position in Group C between Poland, Georgia and Bulgaria could well end up coming to Israel’s rescue.
But Shivek’s team must first take care of its own business, starting against Latvia on Monday.
“Latvia is a good home team and it proved it against Montenegro last week,” Shivek said. “We must maintain our focus and limit them offensively.
Everyone understands that Latvia is a different team when it plays at home.
“We all knew this would be a tough qualifying campaign, and we would have happily settled for our current position when the draw was made. This game is a crossroad and a victory will set us on the right path.”
The blue-and-white thrashed Latvia 110-88 when the teams met at the Nokia Arena two weeks ago.
However, while the Latvians have lost their three road games to date by an average of 22.7 points, they have won two of three encounters in Riga and gave Montenegro a real run for its money before falling 90- 84 in last Tuesday’s encounter.
Rihards Kuksiks (14.8 ppg) and Janis Strelnieks (11.8 ppg, 5.2 apg, 5.2 rpg) lead the Latvians in minutes and points, and the duo combined for 41 points in the defeat in Tel Aviv.
“It is clear we have to win this game,” said Israel star Omri Casspi, who leads the side with 19.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. “We are all expecting a difficult game against an excellent team which has yet to show its true ability. We lost games we should have won, but we still have our fate in our hands. I believe we will beat Latvia.”
David Bluthenthal, who began the campaign impressively, but has scored just a total of nine points in Israel’s last three qualifiers, is also confident the team will know how to get the job done in Riga.
“We are coming to Latvia to win,” the Maccabi Tel Aviv forward said.
“Our problem has been mental. We won two big games, only to lose the subsequent easier encounters. Our backs are now against the wall and we must maintain our composure and claim this victory.”
Also Monday, Israel’s women’s team visits Serbia, looking to maintain its perfect start to its EuroBasket 2011 qualifying campaign.
Israel thrashed Serbia by 28 points in its qualifying opener before beating Latvia and Romania on the road to move into a commanding position at the top of Group B with a 3-0 record.