It’s quite amazing as to how quickly things change in sports. One day you can be about to fall off the mountain top and the next day you are on the top of the world.
That is what the Israel Under-20 team has experienced this past week as it went through peaks and valleys to get to the semifinals of the European Championships.
The young blue-and-white decisively beat a Turkey team that had just come off of a bronze medal performance at the U19 World Cup which included a win over the United States, then fell to Italy and Belgium by double digits in the group stages it looked as if it was curtains ahead of a Round of 16 clash with defending champs Spain. A loss would send head coach Elad Hasin’s sward into a battle against relegation to Division B while shocking win would move Israel into the quarterfinals and lo and behold that is what occurred.
Israel stunned the Spaniards who hadn’t lost in four years since they fell to well, the same Israel who seem to always use them problems.
From there is was a clash against Germany that Hasin’s side just dominated to move into a semifinal contest against Belgium on Saturday night, the same Belgium that had Israel’s number in the group stage.
From almost heading to a relegation battle to now being just a step away from the final is quite a turnaround for a team that really had relied on just two players in Noam Yaacov and Danny Wolf until the latter stages.
Hasin deserves a ton of credit in coming up with a game plan that absolutely stymied the Spaniards who had steamrolled through the group stages with blowout win after blowout win. They had averaged an incredible 26 point margin in their victories in the round robin and it appeared that the game against an Israel that looked dead in the water after a pair of brutal losses was going to be the same.
However, the players reacted well to Hasin and the staff’s roadmap that saw the blue-and-white surprise Spain with a zone defense while seeing players like Ron Zipper and Ariel Isaak step up to keep the opposition to only 52 measly points after having averaged 86 points per game! Spain scored 34 less points than they had in their three wins, now that is an amazing effort by the guys who still did not have their own shooting shoes on (4/22 from 3-point land) but played lockdown defense.
As they say, you can always ensure to have a good day on defense, which is something that can not be guaranteed on offense.
In the 75-64 victory over Germany, Israel finally saw some of the supporting actors come to forefront with massive games as Ron Zipper and Yuval Levin came out like players possessed and stepped up from the opening tip as they scored 23 and 18 points respectively in the win. Danny Wolf and Noam Yaacov didn’t exactly take the game off as they both checked in with double-doubles, but when Israel can get performances as they did from Zipper and Levin along with the dynamic duo who have set the tournament standard so far, then Israel is going to be pretty much unstoppable.
The major issue of players still needing to get minutes during the season remains as it’s clear that many of the squad just didn’t play enough this past campaign. But with their backs against the wall everyone showed exactly what they are made of.
The Israeli spirit, the Israeli toughness and the Israeli will and desire rose to the forefront and while everyone knows that this team may not be as talented as a whole from the ones that won back-to-back European Championships back in 2018 and 2019, they still have a few surprises up their sleeves.
With a day off between the quarterfinals and semis, Israel can rest up and recover, just as they did after the group stage before they took on Spain and there is no doubt that Hasin will put together another game plan and look to spot the Belgians after they had took care of Israel the first time they met.
Thijs De Ridder is doubt one of the most talented players if not the most talented players. The Belgium star leads the tournament in points with 20.6 points and is second in rebounds with 10.4 per game and will be a formidable foe that Israel will need to shut down. Add to the fact that Belgium was down by 17 points to Lithuania in their quarterfinal matchup and came all the way back to take a 77-71 win with De Ridder on the bench during such time having fouled out shows what the team is made of.
There is no question that Belgium caused plenty of issues for Israel in their previous encounter especially holding the blue-and-white to just 17 second half points and they will look to do the same next game in the semifinals.
However, this group of Israeli hoopsters, led by Elad Hasin who has seen a few things in his lengthy basketball coaching career, has already surprised Spain and then downed Germany to get to the rematch with Belgium. With that in mind and an unstoppable drive by the blue-and-white, don’t ever count them out or in Hasin’s words after the win over Spain, don’t ever eulogize Israel.