By Yarone Arbel
Turning point: With a little over five minutes to play Israel's point guard, Gal Mekel, finished a great slash that left the Croatian defense shocked, to give his team a 71-69 lead. Now it was a question if Croatia can handle the pressure, and the answer came right away. Nikola Vujcic and Marko Popovic showed how much experience count when they led a 9-2 run. Croatia never looked back from that point, and eventually secured the win.
Hero: Despite being on the losing side Power Forward Lior Eliyahu of Israel was the man of the night. If it wasn't for his impressive offensive display, Croatia would have locked the game much earlier. He finished the first quarter with no points, but when the lights went out Eliyahu had 31 points in 76.4% from the field, six rebounds and three assists. Eliyahu scored nearly 40% of your team's points to keep the game alive, and give Israel a sack of optimism for the next days.
Stats: Croatia won the rebound battle 32-26, which isn't enough to decide a game, but eventually pulled more rebounds under their own basket than the other end. If Israel had managed to stop Croatia from pulling no less than 17 rebounds they would have probably won the game. Mario Kasun with five, tied with the entire Israeli team offensive rebounds, led the list.
It was close for a huge upset, but at the end of Day One in Group A in Poznan, Croatia wrote an 86-79 victory over Israel and pealed some pressure off their heads.
Croatia climbed to a 1-0 record tied with Greece on top of the group, while Israel dropped to 0-1 along F.Y.R. Of Macedonia.
The two teams at the bottom of the group will go head to head tomorrow in search of a first win, while Croatia and Greece will take on each other in the second game.
Croatia dominated the game for the first 15 minutes, but Israel fought back time after time.
After taking the lead mid-way in the third quarter, Israel gained confidence and seemed to have what it takes to win the game, but a late run by the Croats decided the game in favor of Coach Jasmin Repesa and his gang.
Nikola Vujcic led Croatia with 21 points, 16 of them in the second half when things mattered.
Three back court players - Davor Kus, Marko Popovic and Roko-Leni Ukic scored 13 points each.
"I want to congratulate Israel for a great game," said Repesa.
"They deserved the win as much as we did," he shared with honesty.
Lior Eliyahu was on fire for Israel with 31 points in 76.4% all of them in the last three quarters.
He was followed by youngster Gal Mekel who had 16, Ido Kozikaro with 12 all of them in the first half and Tal Burstein with ten points.
Croatia started the game with two long distance hits, on the way to an 11-4 run.
Israel relayed on their bigs - Yaniv Green and Kozikaro who combined the first ten points, and the gap was only 14-10, but Ukic scored the third three pointer of Croatia in the night, followed by a jumper with a bonus by Kus, to write a 20-10 margin after six minutes.
Mekel with a drive and a big three ball to beat the shot clock pushed Israel back to the game down 23-17, but Croatia dominated the boards and with a Popovic long range hit jumped back to a nine point lead, 28-19.
Eliyahu scored two lay-ups in his unique style to start his machine moving, and forced a Croatian time-out 14 minutes inside the game and only six points between the teams, 33-27.
A series of turnovers on both ends of the floor came to an end when Croatia resumed their dominance on the boards, but Kozikaro and Eliyahu combined points and cut the margin to three before Kus set the half time score on 42-37.
Israel continued the chase and had a chance to take the lead, but only after five minutes it actually happened.
Mekel in a big drive kicked out to Yotam Halperin who scored from distance, to make it 50-48 and force a time-out by Repesa, but Israel wasn't done yet.
Eliyahu and Burstein were hot, and if it wasn't for Vujcic Israel would have held a steady margin, but eventually entered the fourth quarter tied at 59-59.
The two minute break didn't cool down the Israeli forward, who drove to the rim and used his long arms to add seven more points, but an off-dribble three point by Planinic put Croatia back on top, 67-66 with seven minutes to play.
Mekel hit from distance to make it 69-67 in favor of Israel, and things looked bad for the Red-and-White side, but that's when things changed.
"Some things that didn't work for us in the first half, we fixed in the second half," said Zvi Sherf, head coach of Israel, "but these mistakes came back in the last minutes and that lost the game for us."
Croatia wrote an 11-4 run made by Popovic and Vujcic, to enter the last three minutes up 78-73.
"We had the game in our hands and we made some mistakes that made us lose this great chance," concluded Mekel.
"Down the stretch they made the clutch shots, and that's what makes the difference in these types of games," he added.
Israel continued to fight, as in the rest of the game, and was still only a single basket shy in the closing minute, but Croatia was accurate from the line and that was enough to keep the key win in their hands.