By Jeff Taylor
Greece survived a furious second-half fightback by Israel on Tuesday night at the Pionir in Belgrade to win 67-61 and advance to a quarter-final showdown with Russia.
Panagiotis Yannakis' Greeks led by as many as 15 points in the second half but saw their lead dwindle to just three late in the fourth quarter before holding on for the triumph.
Nikos Zisis came off the bench to lead Greece with 23 points and centre Lazaros Papadopoulos weighed in with 19, while also pulling down 10 rebounds.
The Greeks are best known for their tenacious defence, however, and the leader in that department was point guard Dimitrios Diamantidis who had six steals, the biggest coming with 24 seconds in the game and Greece clinging to a 66-60 advantage.
|Dimitrios Diamantidis had 6 steals for Greece|
Tal Burstein had just crossed mid-court and was looking to cut the deficit in half with a three-pointer but Diamantidis stole the ball and passed ahead to Michail Kakiouzis for a lay-up to seal victory.
"Israel showed a big heart after a disappointing first half," Papadopoulos said to PA Sport.
"But we were very smart because having struggled throughout the game at the free throw line, we made sure to make them at the right time."
They finished 18 of 30 (60%) for the game, with Papadopoulos a disappointing five of 12 from the line.
Russia should find it very difficult against the Greeks because of their commitment to defence.
"We are going to take it one step at a time," Papadopoulos said.
"Our priority is to play the basketball that we know against Russia."
Israel dug themselves an early hole in the game, going five minutes without a basket after tying the game at 4-4 with 7:40 to play.
Greece scored six points in that stretch to lead 10-4, and after Dror Hagag stopped the rot with a lay-up, Greece reeled off seven more points in a row for a 17-6 advantage.
Israel were completely out of sync on offence in the first half, turning the ball over 15 times.
Much of that carelessness had to do with Greece's attention to detail on defence, however.
Greece got 12 points in the first 20 minutes off those Israel turnovers.
The Greeks went to the changing rooms at half-time leading 25-14.
They extended the lead to 38-23 with 5:39 to play in the third quarter after a Kakiouzis jumpshot in the lane and looked ready to blow out the Israelis.
But their opponents came to life.
Sharon Shason made two three-pointers in a run which saw Israel close to 45-38 with 48 seconds to play in the third quarter.
Greece stretched the advantage back to 49-41, getting a pair of made free throws from Papadopoulos and a Vasileios Spanoulis lay-up after Hagag had missed the easiest of shots on a drive down the lane for Israel.
Zvi Sherf's Israeli team, who had to win the additional qualifying tournament and then beat both Spain and Latvia in the group stages to reach this game, refused to go away.
They chipped away and finally closed to within three (59-56) with Yotam Halperin contributing a pair of three-pointers in the surge.
Kakiouzis buried a three-pointer for Greece with 1:16 to play, though, to take the lead back to 62-56.
Erez Marckovich cut the lead to four (62-58) with a strong move inside with 1:07 remaining, but Greece's offensive rebounding killed Sherf's team.
After Zisis missed a three-pointer, Diamantidis grabbed the board with 37 seconds to play to keep possession for the Greeks.
Diamantidis made an amazing save to keep the ball from going out of bounds and hit Nikos Chatzivrettas who was wide open under the basket, but the guard missed the lay-up.
Again, Greece gained possession to leave Israel fuming.
Forced to foul to stop the clock, Israel put the Greeks on the line and they made enough down the stretch to seal victory.
Tal Burstein, Israel's captain, had a miserable first half when he failed to score.
In the second half, he did play better and hit a couple of three-pointers to finish with six points.
"First of all, we have to congratulate the Greek side and wish them the best of luck," Burstein said.
"They played very good defence.
"We didn't have a very good start and only managed to score 14 points in the opening half.
"We could have taken the lead, but unfortunately we weren't able to stop Zisis. It's too bad that we are going home."