Basketball EuroBasket Qualifiers Pnini Defends His Performance, as Israel Prepares to Face Serbia.

Another defeat for Israel Tuesday night would be a major blow to the national team's chances of qualifying for next summer's EuroBasket tournament.

After a tough season with Maccabi Tel Aviv, hopes were high that a different Guy Pnini would turn up for the Israeli national team. But the player who was once a byword for stability has become anything but, and it seems that wearing the national team uniform isn't helping him. Of the 13 players on the Israeli roster, Pnini has the worst figures, scoring just 31 percent from the field.

"Nothing out of the ordinary has happened," he insisted. "Part of the problem is that I am taking more difficult shots than I used to. The opposing teams' defense is also guarding me much more closely, but we've only played four games so far. I know what I need to do and I am not worried."

Pnini may not be worried, but another defeat for Israel Tuesday night would be a major blow to the national team's chances of qualifying for next summer's EuroBasket tournament. After starting off with defeats to group leader Montenegro and second-placed Estonia, Israel picked itself up off the floor to record victories over Iceland and Slovakia.

Tonight, however, powerhouse Serbia is in town and then, just two days later, Montenegro will arrive to play the return leg - making this a critical week for head coach Arik Shivek and his charges.

Israeli captain Yotam Halperin believes that all is not lost. "Our fate is still in our hands," he told the EuroBasket website yesterday. "This is not impossible."

Serbian coach Dusan Ivkovic agrees - especially given the excellent form of naturalized American import Alexander Tyus. "He has turned Israel into a much better team," the veteran coach said yesterday. "They are much more athletic and their rebounds have improved beyond recognition. This will be a tough game for both teams. We have both suffered bad defeats at home. There's still a long way to go, however, so the game in Tel Aviv will not be a decider."