Lithuania and Italy served up the quarter final we had been waiting for in EuroBasket 2013. A battle down to the wire where Lithuania finally pulled through to book a date with Croatia.
Finally a game worth killing for. The quarter finals were lacking something up until this point. We needed joie de mort. Where the end of a team’s quest for the title actually caused us to feel it inside. That is what Italy, unwillingly no doubt, delivered on Thursday. The underdogs were dominated on the boards, as any observer no doubt expected, but Marco Belinelli and Alessandro Gentile wouldn’t let that stop them. For all his issues winning rebounds, Gentile delivered offensively with 15 points in the losing effort. Belinelli, ever the stoic operator, was a one man army for the Italians. His haul of 22 points and 2 steals dared the Lithuanians to match him.
In Mantas Kalneitis he had a worthy adversary. It’s easy for Lithuanians to say none of their guards are Saras but for once Kalneitis forced the doubters to be silent. He led the team with 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. In Ljubjana he stood on the floor and demanded respect. Renaldas Sebuitis match Kalneitis in scoring and added 6 rebounds too. This was a team that could match the Italians outside as they sought victory on the interior.
This night however was not one for Jonas Valanciunas. The fearsome big man was quiet all evening, only featuring for 11 minutes, as his team mates carried the load. Trailing 58-57 going into the final frame, Lithuania broke for home with a 15-0 run that would have ended the battle of a lesser foe.
Credit therefore to Italy who battled gamely to the death. One would expect no less from Gigi Datome but to see those around him fight hard was inspiring. Reeling in Lithuania was always going to be unlikely after that run but there was no quarter given by the Italians down the stretch. The preceding quarter finals had been about progression. This game was one of survival.
Italy’s mettle was not enough to take the day but proved their character. They now enter the classification round where they take on Ukraine to lock up a place in the FIBA World Cup next year. Lithuania’s 2014 qualification is assured with this victory. That won’t be on their minds tonight. This is an evening for resting and refocusing. The greater challenge awaits on Friday. Croatia and a place in the final of EuroBasket 2013.