Israel's national basketball team averted the late-game collapses it suffered earlier in its European campaign to beat Serbia 89-76 last night in Tel Aviv. The team moves into third place in Group A of the EuroBasket qualification round with a 3-2 record.
Omri Casspi paced Israel with 23 points - including 17 in the first half - and 17 rebounds.
Yogev Ohayon, however, was the game-changer with an array of timely rebounds and steals to go with his 19 points. Lior Eliyahu also had a fine night, pouring in 22 points. Israel shot a blistering 61.2 percent from two-point range, while Serbia made just 38.8 percent of its field goals for the night.
Casspi jump-started Israel, which devoured Serbia early on like a carnivore after a week on a vegetarian moshav, for an early 23-8 lead. Serbia managed to slow down the pace and kept Israel's lead in the seven-to-12-point range through the remainder of the half.
After Milos Teodosic cut Israel's lead back to seven with 18 seconds left, Guy Pnini, who has struggled the entire tournament, buried a buzzer-beating three-pointer for his first points of the game, giving Israel a 48-38 halftime lead.
Ohayon continued to show plenty of hustle in the third quarter, at one point soaring for an offensive rebound over an unsuspecting Serbia player, then stealing the ball a couple of possessions later to keep Serbia from cutting into Israel's lead.
The gap remained between seven and 12 points in the third period. Yotam Halperin was fouled at the end of the quarter, taking a three-pointer. He converted two free throws to make it 65-56 in Israel's favor.
Israel looked about to fall apart again in the fourth quarter. After going up 67-56, Serbia scored the next six points to cut the lead to five with 7:13 to go. However, after a pair of free throws to stretch the lead to nine, Israel finally got a defensive stop, and a Halperin-to-Tyus alley-oop charged up the crowd. On the next possession, Ohayon forced Serbia into a half-court violation. Serbia cut the lead to 70-65, but Ohayon knocked down a three in response. After Halperin forced a turnover, Casspi made a fast-break lay-up and drew the foul, though he missed the free throw. Israel then stretched the lead to 12 and with under four minutes left, the fears of another second-half collapse dissipated.
The victory over Serbia leaves Israel among the top qualifiers for next summer's EuroBasket 2013, albeit in a precarious position.
After one round of games, Israel is in third place in Group A. If the victory over last-place Slovakia is discounted, Israel is 2-2, precisely the same record as the third-place teams in the other five groups.
Israel's scoring to points allowed ratio, according to FIBA, is 1.10, the third-best among third-place teams. Israel would thus advance at this point as one of the four best teams that does not qualify automatically from the top two spots in each group. If Israel can win four out of five in the second half, including against Estonia, it will almost certainly qualify. Three wins might also suffice but would be very risky.
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