By Yarone Arbel
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
of Israeli team back then," said Sherf.
||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.