Basketball / Women's Eurobasket / Israel faces fancied Belarus in tough European qualifier
Coach Eli Rabi and his players are in Minsk to play the tournament group's favorite, Belarus, which finished third at the 2009 European Championships.
Having already scored a convincing victory over Ukraine, Israel's national women's basketball team tonight faces its toughest test as it seeks to qualify for next summer's European Championships in France.
Coach Eli Rabi and his players are in Minsk to play the tournament group's favorite, Belarus, which finished third at the 2009 European Championships and fourth in 2009 and 2010. In the 2011 competition, however, Belarus failed to make it into the quarterfinal, so this season it has to qualify alongside the other "lesser lights" of women's basketball.
The two teams have met three times, with Israel winning twice, including a 68-41 mauling at last year's European Championships. Belarus is playing without two of its strongest players, but still has a perfect record thus far.
"Belarus is a very strong team," Rabi told Haaretz, "but we are not listening to all those who say we will lose. I am optimistic by nature and I am optimistic about this game, too."
Much will rest on the shoulders of Jennifer Fleischer, Israel's U.S.-born center, who, at 1.91 meters, is the tallest player on the Israeli roster and one of the tallest in the women's game. When the national team trains, Amir Tito, who playes for Maccabi Ra'anana in the second division, is brought in to be Fleischer's training partner, since none of the women on the roster are able to cope with her height.
Tito also serves as general manager for the national women's team and, on the morning before Israel's victory over Ukraine, Fleischer asked him to be her training partner again. That evening, she put in a fine defensive performance and added nine points to the Israeli score. After the game, her teammates said they knew she would have a good game. "We could tell by the way she smashed up Amir's jaw that she was revved up," one of them said.
Speaking to Haaretz on Tuesday - in a conversation conducted mainly in Hebrew - the 27-year-old claimed she was no more pumped up for the Ukraine game than any other. "Every year, before I join up on the national team, I try to make sure I am in peak condition," she said.
Fleischer's father, Bob, played in the 1970s for both Hapoel and Maccabi Tel Aviv. "When I first arrived in Israel, people knew about my father much more than in the States. Any time I tell people my family name, they ask if I'm Bob Fleischer's daughter. Everyone seems to have a story to tell about him."