Lithuania qualified to the FIBA World Cup by locking the basket in the fourth quarter, and throwing away the key.
Lithuania defeated Italy 81-77 in the final quarter-final tie in Ljubljana, as the Italians were held scoreless for the first six minutes of the final period. The Azzuri now head out of the competition while Lithuania gets ready to face Croatia in the Eurobasket semi-finals.
“The pressure is now off,” admitted Lithuania’s Martynas Pocius, who scored 11 points for Lithuania. “The key was the fourth quarter, especially our defence, our three-point shooting and our rebounding. We did a pretty good job at the free throw line today as well.”
Until the fourth quarter, Lithuania made it hard for themselves. Allowing the Italians several opportunities to extend their lead but they failed to take it.
“When we had that timeout, coach said we have ten more minutes, something you’ve been working for all summer and the guys really stepped up,” Pocius said.
“We had some good defensive stops and had some key defensive rebounds and that’s what we did. We wanted to step it up.”
“We’re starting to play more like a team now,” said Mantas Kalnietis, who led Lithuania with 17 points.
“Right now, we’re all on the same page, we have one more goal now. The World Cup goal is done, now we must win Eurobasket now. Tonight, we played a very strong team in Italy, we made it difficult, but our belief got us through.”
Renaldas Seibutis also matched Kalnietis’ total of 17 points while Jonas Maciulis added 13.
Marco Bellinelli led Italy with 22 points as they prepare to face Ukraine tomorrow in a game for tournament placings.
“I really hate to lose games, It’s the worst” Bellinelli said. “We didn’t start the game too well, for five minutes we didn’t play too well, and then in the fourth quarter, they [Lithuania] went up by 10 and from there the game was over.”
A score from Kalnietis gave Lithuania a 9-2 lead as they looked to push the tempo early, Italy were sluggish, missing open shots, while the 2011 Eurobasket hosts, thanks to a bucket from Maciulis raced out to a 16-8 cushion.
Italy never got going in the first ten minutes of play, despite a triple from Gentile to end the quarter. The Group D winners hoped that it would give them a platform to build on going into the second quarter. Lithuania were up 22-15.
Travis Diener opened the second quarter to bring Italy closer, but Lithuania extended their lead to 27-20 thanks to a one-hand slam from Jonas Valanciunas. The drums, heard by the famous Lithuanian following were getting louder and louder as Italy’s offence was static, unable to find an extra pass due to Lithuania’s denial to give any Italian player room.
Then a timeout with 5:30 left in the half seemed to spark Italy back into life, Bellinelli and Andrea Cinciarini scored to lift their side’s hopes and a bucket from Bellinelli in the final seconds of the second narrowed Lithuania’s lead to 40-39.
The third quarter was intense, both team vying for position. Maciulis scored to give Lithuania a 50-44 lead, only to be answered with a 9-0 Italy surge, highlighted by a three-point play from Cinciarini.
The Lithuanians though came right back, a real tug-of-war ten minutes looked to be settled for now with buckets from Seibutis and Maciulis. Bellinelli had the last word of the third period. His drive to the bucket and two-hand slam with authority gave Italy the edge going into the fourth, his side led 58-57.
Lithuania though had the answers though in the fourth, as Italy faded, visibly tired and unable to compete with the Lithuanian attack.
“It was a difficult game for us. I cannot say that someone controlled the game. In the end, we found where we are strong, used those positions and we won,” Lithuania coach Jonas Kazlauskas said.
Photo courtesy of FIBA Europe.