David Bluthenthal, center, being smothered by Italy last night.
David Bluthenthal, center, being smothered by Italy last night. Photo by Nir Keidar
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With his team needing a win to keep its hopes alive of reaching the EuroBasket group stage, Andrea Bargnani showed why he has carved a niche for himself in the NBA.

The hulking center scored 24 points for Italy last night in its gritty 81-76 victory over Israel at Yad Eliahu in Tel Aviv. The most critical basket of the game came with 1:12 remaining, when the Italian was fortunate to handle a rebound that slipped out of the hands of Lior Eliyahu and Tal Burnstein, letting him waltz in for an easy deuce that put the game out of reach.

Israel mounted a furious comeback late after falling behind by 12 points to start the last quarter, but it was too little, too late. Arik Shivek's team failed to defend consistently for three full quarters, allowing the Italians too much freedom to roam on offense. The shooting touch that served Israel so well betrayed it last night.

Omri Casspi led Israel with 20 points and 10 rebounds while his frontcourt mate Eliyahu added 19 points.

On a positive note, the women's national team continued its climb toward the EuroBasket tournament with a surprising 71-66 road victory against Latvia in Riga. The win places the team in first place in Group B.

After racking up an impressive 93 points in its victory over Serbia last week, the Israeli team proved that it can also win with its defense. Last night it beat a quality opponent ranked seventh in Europe.

The Israelis' stifling zone defense confused the Latvians, who failed to create easy scoring opportunities under the basket despite their advantage in rebounds (34-23 ).

Israel did not begin the game effectively, scoring just four points in the first five minutes. But Shay Doron, the University of Maryland star, came alive, as did Ekaterina Abramzon.

Israel dominated the second half thanks to precision shooting from Doron, surprising contributions from Liad Suez Karni, and active defense from Laine Selwyn. But after Israel built a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, Latvia roared back to tie the game with 1:11 remaining thanks to its three-point shooting.

Suez Karni's clutch free-throw shooting and Selwyn's steal in Latvia's final possession sealed the win for Israel. Doron led all scorers with 22 points and Liron Cohen added 11 points and five assists.