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.
|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."
Greece and Israel will step on court on Tuesday in the Pionir arena in Belgrade to fight for a place in the quarter-finals of EuroBasket 2005. Greece finished in second in Group C with a 2-1 record, while Israel recorded an identical record, but finished in 3rd place in Group D.
The Greeks have won the last 7 games against Israel in official games, but that doesn't bother Israeli coach Zvika Sherf.
"The last win of Israel over Greece is registered under Adi Gordon's name (An Israeli guard who nailed 8 three-pointers in that victory), but I hope people remember who was the coach
|“||Everybody knows I'm an expert for Greek basketball||„|
That coach, of course, was Sherf himself, who commands a lot of respect in Greece, where he coached for many years in three different teams and won a European title with Aris Thessaloniki.
Sherf has a love affair with Greek basketball and he will try to use it to his advantage.
"For me this is like a derby. Everybody knows I'm an expert for Greek basketball. I know each one of their players very good even without watching their games here. Nevertheless, I saw all the three games from the first group, and I'll be ready for the game in 200%. If that won't be enough then in 250%."
Israel qualified to EuroBasket 2005 through the additional qualifying tournament, and Tuesday night will be their 6th game in 9 days.
Even NBA teams don't play such a tight schedule, but so far Israel have risen to the challenge magnificently, losing just one of their 6 contests.
The players are tired and also miss their families back home, but no one wants to go back before the last day of the championship. "I want to go back home only in one month, to also have a rest after the championship" joked Dror Hagag, who is leading the tournament in steals at 4.0 spg.
Hapoel Jerusalem guard Meir Tapiro, who is averaging 8.7 ppg in EuroBasket 2005, says "When we play well we can beat any team, no matter how big they are. You have to believe, and we have big belief in ourselves".
"In order to pass Greece we'll need to reach a new peak, to climb one more step up, be very patient and concentrated in everything that happens," added Sherf.
At EuroBasket 2005, Israel played in the elimination-round against Slovenia, and produced a shock 78-76 win, after Tal Burstein sank a clutch mid-range jumper with 2 seconds on the clock. Greece on the other side has never won an elimination game.
In EuroBasket 2001 they lost to Germany 75-80 and two years ago they skipped the elimination stage by qualifying directly to the quarter-finals.
"For us that loss to Israel in 1993 and the performance of Adi Gordon is an example that if you're not concentrated you can lose to anyone" says Greek coach, Panagiotis Yannakis, who was a member of the Greek side that lost that day.
Yannakis has also had the pleasure of being coached by Sherf, his opponent on the sideline on Tuesday. "Sherf knows us very well, and that's an advantage to his team. I remember he was always a tough coach".
The Greeks see themselves as clear favorites for the game and are not shy about broadcasting that fact: "I believe we are better than Israel, and if we are patient and concentrated we'll beat them" added Yannakis. "Israel will try to mess with our brains. This is what it takes from a team without a lot of talent – to try to take you out of your game".
Benetton guard, Nikolaos Zisis however, is a little more circumspect. "Our performance against Bosnia-Herzegovina won't be enough tonight. For us the championship starts tonight".
"Israel is a tough team. It's always tough to play against Israel. Each team can beat the other and it's going to be a hard game to beat," added Greek forward Michail Kakiouzis.
Greece are the best defensive team so far in EuroBasket 2005, and have held their opponents to 56 ppg in the first three games. Israel, on the other hand, are averaging 79 ppg so will offer a new challenge for the Greek defense.
It is clear that Greece will have to rely on their defense, as offense has not been a strong point. In fact, the Greeks are averaging only 62.3 ppg, enough for the 15th place in the ranking.