Saturday, September 02, 2006

Eurobasket qualification campaign resumes tonight in Macedonia

The national basketball team will play its second Eurobasket 2007 qualifier in less than 72 hours when it faces Macedonia in Skopje on Sunday night.

The blue-and-white made their way from Sofia to Skopje on Friday morning in a confident mood after their comeback 88-81 win against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Thursday night.

Israel trailed Bosnia for the entire first half of its "home" game played in Bulgaria, but thanks to improved defensive play in the third quarter, grabbed the lead and held on.

"We began the qualifying campaign in a positive way, but we most remember that our main goal is to book our spot in the European championship," said Israeli guard Dror Hajaj, who starred in the game with 18 points. "We need to keep on winning and hope for the best. The Israel national team proved once again that it shows up on the big occasions."

Bosnia is widely regarded as the toughest opponent Israel will face in its qualifying group. However, the prospect of playing Macedonia in front of its partisan crowd will be no easy task. Despite losing one the road to Portugal 108-90 in its first game on Thursday night, the Macedonians have the ability to cause Israel a fair amount of problems.

The team is led by veteran guard Vrbica Stefanov, who dictates the flow of play on offense. American-born Ryan Stack is the team's go-to guy. The center, who starred in the BSL a few seasons ago, scored 24 points and grabbed six rebounds in the loss on Thursday.

The task of slowing down Stack will rest on the shoulders of Israel's own American-born big man, who outplayed the Bosnians on Thursday. Jamie Arnold scored 21 points, including eight in a row at a crucial moment in the third quarter that gave Israel the lead.

"I've been doing these kinds of things during my entire career," Arnold commented after the game. "I feel great in the team and I'm glad I could help."

Yaniv Green and Amit Tamir, who also played a central part in the win - scoring 10 points each, will also be called on by coach Tzvika Sherf to continue contributing.

Sherf is hoping that Yotam Halperin will have a better game than he did in Sofia. The 22-year-old Israeli failed to score a single field goal in the entire game and never really felt comfortable against the Bosnians. Halperin's points were desperately missed in the first half and Israel will be hoping the guard regains his shooting touch against Macedonia.

"We beat Bosnia and now we have to concentrate on Macedonia," said the NBA hopeful. "I didn't play well and I need to work out why. We are a balanced team and that's one of our strengths. Whoever plays poorly today will play well tomorrow."

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