Women's basketball / European Championships / Israel's defense strategy
With a weakened roster, Israel will rely on defense and Shay Doron's baskets against Ukraine.
Head coach Eli Rabi's watchword for the national team could well be that "the best offense is a good defense." This can be a risky strategy, but given the players Rabi is working with, it's probably his best bet.
"Ever since I've been with the national team we've been working on our offense," he says, adding frankly: "On defense we have set ways of playing and rely mainly on our instincts."
This is a surprising statement, but on the other hand it shows Rabi is aware of how to best use the material at his disposal. "This is a team that is playing above its level, and I know that if we produce the goods on offense this will energize the defense, and vice versa. If the team fails to put points on the scoreboard it will also find it difficult to control the game, as happened against Hungary [a game Israel lost 46-64 last month]."
During the present European Championship qualifying tournament, Israel has averaged 60.5 points per game. Rabi says the team is using more set plays than in previous years, but this hasn't prevented the team from being ranked 18th out of 25 national teams vying for qualification.
"In the past we didn't use so many set plays - we had a back line of Laine [Selwyn], Liron [Cohen] and Shay [Doron], and knew it was enough that the ball was in their hands. Today it's harder for us and we're wracking our brains trying to work out new plays. We built two plays around Jennifer [Fleicher, the team's tallest player] and because we play without a small forward, all the plays designed for Shay are also suitable for Noa [Ganor]. We are trying to squeeze the best out of each and every player. But whether they score or not is not always under my control. I know this situation is not perfect. From the moment Laine left, Liron became the center and our game became more static. They don't have a specific instruction to play slower, but in practice that's what's happening."
Israel's previous campaigns were based on the many baskets sunk by Doron and Cohen, but the team also had Liad Suez-Karni and Selwyn, whose often scored in double digits. Katia Abramzon scored respectably in both tournaments while players like Merav Dori and Fleicher came to the fore from time to time, leaving Israel's rivals confused about whom to guard most closely.
The team's average point total during the qualifying rounds for the 2008 and 2010 European Championships was 76 and 79.3 points, respectively. In the 2007 European Championships, in which Israel lost all its games - though by small margins - it scored an average of 70 points. However in last year's disastrous European Championships, that figure plummeted to 49.3 points.
This summer, Israel's rivals don't have to do any in-depth scouting. They know they mainly have to stop Doron, who has supplied roughly 30 percent of Israel's points, followed by Cohen and Katia Levitsky, who jointly have accounted for about 37 percent. The other nine players altogether added only an average of around 20 points a game.
"This is not an ideal situation because it makes it easier for our rivals to stop us," says Doron, who is ranked sixth in the tournament in scoring with an 18-point average, while standing fourth in assists with a game average of 4.3.
"This year I'm trying more to pass the ball to others - sometimes too much," Doron says. "In my opinion it's a mental issue. There's no reason why every player shouldn't score eight points a game. We should be like Hungary, which has quite a few players who score eight to 12 points a game. I don't really want to score 20 points every game, but unfortunately that's the situation."
It's not clear whether Doron's teammates think they are capable of fixing this arrangement. Abramzon, a Bosman (European national ) player in Europe, feels like a utility player for the national team.
"All the girls want to score 20 points, but that can't be done by force," she says. "In the last game I scored nine early points, then they [Portugal] came at me and forced me to pass. The principle with the national team is that if they want you to score points, then score points, and if they want you to defend, defend. When I played for a team in Romania I was expected to score points - otherwise, what was I doing there? On the national team my job is to help Shay and Liron. Every player is capable of giving more, but in principle the system is built around Shay and Liron. If anyone scores 10 points that would be considered a tremendous addition."
Ganor accepts the team's general haplessness on offense and builds her hopes on defense. "I don't think this is something that can change," she says. "We always knew the national team will be limited in attack, and we will have to keep the opposition's score as low as possible. Of course, if more girls could play a part in offense, it would be better, but our base is first and foremost our defense. If we defend well we could give every team a good game."
It is clear that the present national team is not as good as some of its predecessors and lacks a dominant center since Laine Selwyn left. This evening at 6 P.M., Israel will take on Ukraine, the team against which it has scored the most points (73 ) and given up the fewest (58 ) in the qualifying round. Three weeks ago, Israel beat Ukraine in 73-58, with Doron notching 28 points and Levitsky being the only other player to hit in double figures, with 10.
Belarus stands atop Qualifying Group A with nine points, followed by Ukraine and Hungary with eight, Israel with six and Portugal with five points.
On Tuesday, ahead of the crucial game in Ukraine, Rabi said: "In the last two games we didn't play as well - it could be because of tiredness or we just had a bad day. I believe in these players - they haven't let me down in the past and will continue to give their best."