Basketball / EuroBasket qualifier / Israel squeezes into finals
Loses to Serbia by just enough points.
Having effectively secured a place in the finals, Israel came into last night's game in Belgrade in a relatively relaxed frame of mind. Arik Shivek's charges needed to lose by less than 18 points, and ended up losing 79-64.
Israel opened with Alex Tyus, Yotam Halperin, Omri Casspi, Yogev Ohayon and Lior Eliyahu, but trailed 14-6 after only three minutes. The Serbs had their backs to the wall and needed to win by a large margin if they are to advance to the next round.
With Milenko Tepic outstanding, the hosts built up a 28-14 lead by the end of the first quarter. The team coached by Dusan Ivkovic kept up the pressure in the second quarter, racing to a 37-14 lead as the Israelis looked disorganized.
But Eliyahu inspired a mini-comeback that pegged the gap back to under 20 points, with the first half ending at 51-31 to Serbia.
As in previous games, Ido Kozikaro came off the bench to add some vital baskets as Casspi led Israel's slow comeback after the break. The third session ended 63-47, with Casspi's points tally at 18.
The goal was clear: Losing the game by less than 18 points guaranteed Israel a place in the finals. The pressure was on the underachieving hosts, as Israel could afford to lose this game.
As the fourth quarter rolled on, this became more apparent as the Serbs made several errors due to frayed nerves, missing a couple of relatively easy baskets and misdirecting passes. Guy Pnini made up for his poor EuroBasket campaign with a stellar performance in the final quarter, as Israel continued to whittle away at Serbia's lead.
But at 65-52 the Serbs awoke from their coma, and raced to 81-65 as the cauldron of a stadium boiled over with tension. With 15 seconds left on the clock, the Serbs needed three points. They only managed two, which Israel reciprocated, which meant that Israel had managed to finalize its booking for the finals, at the 11th successive attempt.
Casspi was Israel's top scorer with 20 points.