|The man with the mask Marco Belinelli saw his team almost fade in Finland but clinched the win with important free throws.|
Italy almost blew their prospects of reaching EuroBasket 2011 after allowing an 18 point half-time lead to evaporate in Finland but in a dramatic finale, the Azzurri regained their composure and kept their cool from the line to squeeze home 85-83.
Marco Belinelli made three of four free-throws in crunch time to ensure the whole of Italy was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief as they keep up the pressure on Israel and Montenegro in Group A of the Qualifying Round.
Finland started the brighter of the two teams and just after the midway point of the opening quarter, they had held the visitors to just 6 points in almost six minutes as a triple by Sasu Salin put them 12-6 ahead.
However this was to prove a false sense of calm before an Azzurri storm which blew Finland away in double-quick time. By the end of the first quarter, Italy had finally woken up and got their noses in front at 19-18.
Soon after, the second quarter offensive assault left Finland floored as Italy conducted a sustained perimeter bombardment to outscore their hosts 29-12 and seemingly break the game open.
Back-to-back threes by Jacopo Giachetti and Marco Mordente set the tone and by half-time, six different Italian players had converted from outside and that was one big factor in them leading 48-30.
However, Finland were not done and they produced a terrific third quarter to put a vastly different reflection on the game heading into the final ten minutes.
Down by 52-38, a 10-1 run then got them back into the game as they ate impressively into the Italian lead. By the end of the third, they were just six points behind at 65-59.
Even better was to follow as they continued their good work in the final quarter. 70-62 behind, the home team rattled off a 14-3 to send the home crowd into raptures. Back-to-back triples by home favourite Teemo Ranniko brought the hosts to within one point and then a free-throw by the player putting them in front ay 76-75.
In a nail-biting conclusion, another outside score, this time by Salin kept Finland in front at 81-80 with just over a minute to play but five points by Bellini inside the last 60 seconds saw Italy home.
Andrea Bargnani finished with 24 points while Bellini claimed 23 although neither were particularly impressive in terms of their production. Not that anyone supporting Italy cares - this vital win was all that mattered.
In the first half we showed what kind of a team we can be. In the second half we showed the areas that still need developing. Because of that this was a really important game for us. Finland was hard to beat. We knew that coming in since they managed to win against Israel at home. Finland is a tough team. This win wasn't easy by any means."
Finland player Teemu Rannikko:
"I am happy and proud as one can be after a loss. We gave it all we got, fought our way back in to the game and showed our potential. Fans gave us a lot of energy. It's a shame that we couldn't keep up the level of play for the whole 40 minutes."
Finland, head coach Henrik Dettmann
"With all the problems we have faced, it was incredible to see the team collectively making an effort and coming back after trailing by almost 20 points. We even had a chance to win the game. Unfortunately our efforts did not get a prize tonight, but there's not much more I can ask from my team. They showed a lot of heart."