Israel qualifies even as it valiantly falls to Montenegro
Despite a 79-69 loss to Montenegro, Israel is advancing to the European finals for the 10th straight time.
The Israeli men's team could have let its guard down, taking on a Montenegro squad that has yet to lose at home and knowing that it could lose by up to 43 points thanks to Georgia's 94-83 upset of Bulgaria in Group 3 and still qualify for next year's EuroBasket finals. Yet, the men did their best not to back into the finals but to get there from first place. The team fell short, however, as Montenegro dominated the final eight minutes to blow back Israel 79-69.
Israel advanced to the European finals for the 10th straight time and, more important, did it without having to resort to the additional qualifying round.
Omri Casspi and Lior Eliyahu led the Israel effort with 18 points each, but Montenegro dominated the boards 39-32 and was more efficient converting second-chance points.
With the boisterous local crowd, the game had a tournament feel to it. The fans cheered loudly midway through the fourth quarter as Montenegro rebuffed Israel's challenge and scored two straight baskets to break a 62-62 deadlock to take a four-point lead.
After Lior Eliyahu broke through for a layup to tie the game at 62-all with 7:53 remaining, the Montenegrin defense clamped down and shut Israel out on its next six possessions. Finally, Casspi drew a fast break foul and made his first free throw at the four-minute mark, but by that time Isarel trailed 71-63. On the very next possession, Montenegro's Vladimir Dragisevic (20 points ) grabbed his own rebound and drew a foul as he put the ball back in. He converted the three-point play, giving Montenegro and seemingly insurmountable 74-63 lead, having seemingly established the momentum.
Yet a couple of steals gave Israel one final chance. Casspi hit a layup to close the gap to 75-67 and Lior Eliyahu scored on the following possession, also off a steal to make it 75-69 with 1:07 to go. But Omar-Shaif Cook drew a foul from Yogev Ohayon to stretch the lead back to eight and Ohayon turned over the ball on Israel's end of the court as the game slipped away with Dragisevic burying a jumper for the finishing touch.
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