Israel and Belarus gave the fans a little bit of everything in their Group D opener. Both teams deserved to win, but it was Belarus that showed nerves of steel as it pulled out a 81-76 comeback victory in the last seven minutes.
Being the 2007 bronze medallists, Belarus was not supposed to have much of a problem with a team that hasn't won a EuroBasket game since 1991, but Israel played hard and tough from the get go and caught the bigger and more experienced Belarus team off guard.
It was a tale of two halves, the first one defined by Israel's energetic play and the scoring exhibition put on
|Shay Doron led the way for Israel with 26 points.|
Belarus's young star Yelena Leuchenka, who was held scoreless in the first half and only managed five points in the game, explained what went wrong at the beginning and the adjustments Anatony Buyalski's team made:
"It was definitely tougher than we expected. I don't think they have much of a post presence. They have more guard presence and everyone can shoot the three. We didn't recognize right away what defense they were playing against us - it was a box and one- and then we adjusted. Our shooting percentage wasn't that good in the first half, but we shot very well in the second half and got some offensive rebounds. A W is a W. It's behind us. We won and now we can think about tomorrow."
Known as a team that gets it done inside, this time Belarus relied on its exterior shooting. The trio of Yuliya Dureika, Tatyana Troina and Nataliya Trafimava all notched over ten points a piece and shot a combined 7-for-14 from beyond the three-point-line.
Coach Buyalski singled out Troina and her team-leading16 points in particular. "She kept us in the game," he said.
Belarus opened the game cold, only shooting 34% in the first half. Buyalski said the key to creating some offense and counterbalancing his lack of playmakers was to give his outside players permission to let the ball fly.
"I told my shooting guards that they must always look to take the dribble and contribute offensively," he explained.
Israel could not have hoped for a better start to the game. Israel opened strong behind Shay Doron's eight points over the first five minutes to build a 15-7 lead. Belarus looked confused about where to go on offense, a fear that their coach had voiced before the game coming true on the court.
Doron tallied 10 points on 4/4 shooting from the field in the first ten minutes, a single free-throw being her only miss. But Belarus cut their initial lead to 21-17 before the quarter came to a close.
The same dynamic continued in the second quarter- Israeli a step faster and with a hungry attitude while Belarus continued to scrape out points on rebounds and turnovers while searching for its flow on offense.
All game-long Israel was powered by Doron's game-high 26 points, seconded by Liron Cohen's 17. But for as good as Doron was, team-mate Katia Levitsky gave her run for her money as her team's most valuable player in the game racking up 19 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
Israel enjoyed its biggest lead near the seven-minute mark in the third quarter on a Liad Suez Karni three-pointer that gave her team a 10 point cushion at 44-34.
But Belarus scored the next eleven points to take its first lead 45-44 with 3:36 to go in the quarter.
In the fourth quarter both teams traded baskets and leads back and forth. But in the final minutes a combination of mental mistakes by the Israelis, giving away two uncontested lay-ups with less than three minutes to go, and two key three pointers by Trafimava (3:17) and Troina (:37) decided the game.
Israeli forward Ekaterina Abramzon pointed to that "something" her team was missing that cost them the victory.
"It was great game but we were missing something, a little in rebounding, a little in defense, avoiding small mistakes, but we played a good game against a good team. It happens, there is always a winner and a loser. This time we were on the losing side, but I hope tomorrow will be better," she said.
Israeli coach Eli Rabi summed up the encounter as a test between Belarus's height advantage versus his squad's fighting spirit.
"We are a team that does not have the same size as other teams. We are shorter and don't have the same mass as the others. The only thing we can really give extra is our heart and soul. We did it today but it was not enough," he said.
Yet the truth is that a rare thing happened in this opening game of Group D- both teams can go away happy with the game they played and take that positive momentum into their next games (Israel vs. Italy and Belarus vs. France). Belarus found a way to get a tough win while Israel showed that they are no pushover.
Anatoly Buyalsky, Belarus Head Coach
"This was a very difficult game. Israel is very good team. This is the first tournament when we won the first game. In this tournament every team is well prepared. Israel was small and aggressive, but French players are much taller and are expected to be even more aggressive. About tomorrow's game I don't want to comment yet how the game will look like."
Eli Rabi, Israel Head Coach
"I congratulate my friends from Belarus. It is a very good team. The whole game started to change in the beginning of second half. This was the moment when Belarus started to beat us."