Pure joy for Italy after they stormed into the final with a win over Russia
Italy produced another masterpiece of their artful ‘small-ball' on Saturday to defeat Russia 77-68 and earn the right to face Latvia in the gold-medal game of the Sportland U20 European Championship, in Tallinn.
TURNING POINT: Italy were going through a four-minute long dry spell, their only in the encounter, and Russia pushed ahead 43-42 with 5:20 left in the third quarter when Michele Ruzzier drilled a triple from eight meters out, returned to the other end, stole the ball and was fouled as he was darting down the court to Russia's basket, sinking both free throws to give Italy a 47-43 lead within 18 seconds.
GAME HERO: Italy's ‘small-ball' tactics, complete with relentless full-court press and a full play-book of offensive plays that involve five players outside the three-point arc; a triumph for coach Sacripanti and his players, the smallest in size team in the tournament.
STATS DON'T LIE: Despite their size advantage, Russia took -or were forced to take - more shots than Italy from three-point range while their shot-chart shows they attempted almost twice as many two-pointers from beyond five meters than Italy. Almost incredibly, Italy also out-rebounded their opponents 41-37.
Italy did not modify their style of play one iota from what they had shown against Russia just three days previously, in Wednesday's 88-70 win in the Second Round.
On Saturday however, they proved that they can do the same things even better, and even when fatigue from a 45-minute long quarter-final clash has taken its toll on their legs.
The Azzurri employed their by now trademark full-court press even in the clutch when tiredness on both sides was at its peak, and it was even more effective there as every Russian turnover or bad shot seemed to further fuel the Italian engine.
Italy, who led for a total of 36 minutes on Saturday, imposed their high tempo right from the start but only managed to gain a considerable lead late in the second quarter, after trailing for the first time in the game, albeit by just one point.
They used a frenetic 10-0 run to turn a 30-29 deficit into a 39-30 advantage, before Aleksander Gudumak finally received two good balls inside and posted up on consecutive Russian possessions to reduce to 39-34.
Gudumak inside and Alexander Zakharov from the perimeter combined for nine points at the beginning of the third frame to bring Russia ahead, but Ruzzier's five points stopped the rot for Italy and turned the game around again, this time for good.
Italy reached the third buzzer leading 55-49, Awudu Abass scored the first five points in the fourth frame in quick succession and Matteo Imbro drilled a three-pointer to bring the gap to 15 points, 67-52, with 6:10 remaining to play.
Russia threw everything at them in the final six minutes, pressed effectively and risked as much as humanly possible, but Italy would not allow them to come closer than nine points, their bench celebrating the big win when there almost still a minute on the clock.
Abass looked tired at times but he was still a fountain of energy for Italy and led his team with 18 points, five rebounds and two assists; Amedeo Della Valle had 12 points and five rebounds while Imbro and Marco Lagana chipped in with 10 points each.
Zakharov was excellent for Russia and finished with 19 points, while Gudumak had 15 points and four rebounds in defeat.