By Jeff Taylor
Belarus beat hosts Italy like a drum on Wednesday and clinched a place in the EuroBasket quarter-finals for the first time in their history.
Making their debut in the final round of the tournament, Belarus have made the most of it.
They bounced back from a heavy defeat to Russia and romped to a 66-51 triumph over the
|Yelena Leuchanka was great for Belarus with 18 points and 10 rebounds.|
Belarus encountered stiff resistance for most of the first half, but by game’s end, they had been superior in every aspect of the contest.
“We really just believed in ourselves,” said Belarus forward Svetlana Volnaya.
“We may have surprised some people, but we thought we were going to go far.”
Volnaya did have to admit the run to the quarter-finals, where they are likely to face the defending champions Czech Republic, was tough to comprehend.
“We're just a little bit in shock right now,” she said. “We came to win and won and against Italy at home, so we're just really happy.”
Yelena Leuchanka, who is turning into one of the star performers in this tournament, scored 18 points and pulled down 10 rebounds to lead Belarus.
The 1.94m center is now averaging 12.7 points and 7.7 rebounds at the EuroBasket.
The loss is a bitter pill to swallow for Italy, who had hammered Serbia in their last game and firmly believed they would reach the last eight.
“It’s a bad day for the national team,” said Italy coach Gianni Lambruschi.
|With the exception of Francesca Modica, Italy struggled from distance.|
“We spent a lot of energy in our previous games and today we didn’t have enough energy for this game.
“I would like to thank the federation for the last three years and we’re sorry to leave the tournament.”
Italy, with a partisan crowd behind them in Ortona, pressured the Belarus jump shooters in the first two quarters but opposing coach Anatoli Buyalski had a game plan and his players executed it to perfection.
The players of Belarus always looked to make the extra pass to get the ball inside to Leuchanka and Anastasiya Veremeenko, and it paid dividends in the second quarter when they scored 14 of their team’s 19 points.
Meanwhile, Italy often punished opponents in this competition with their long-range shooting, but they simply could not get into a rhythm against Belarus.
Raffaella Masciadri and Laura Macchi were a combined zero for 12 from behind the arc, with only Francesca Modica having any success.
She connected on all three attempts from three-point range in the first half and finished four of six (66.7%) from long range.
As a team, Italy were a nightmarish four of 26 (15.4%) from behind the arc.
When they put the ball on the floor and drove to the basket, Leuchanko and host of Belarus defenders were always there to stop them.
“They had the crowd but we played really well on defense,” Volnaya said.
“We played a little bit smarter on offense. We settled down. And they played a little more rushed and took quick shots.
“And that's how we got ahead. We just had to play good tonight. There was no other way around it.”
Volnaya then called on an expression she would have learned while a player at the University of Virginia.
“We had to bring it on,” she said.
When Dubravka Dacic made one of two free throws to give Italy a 23-21 lead with 6:43 remaining in the second quarter, the Azzurre looked to be in good shape.
Leuchanka tied the game with a jump shot, though, and then put her side ahead for good with a layup.
Katsiaryna Snytsina followed with a three-pointer and Belarus were on their way to victory.
A strange sequence at the end of the first half summed up the day for Italy.
Belarus guard Volha Padabed rushed up a shot from close to half-court and nearly three seconds remained for Italy, who trailed 36-30 and decided to call timeout to set up a play before the break.
When play resumed, Italy threw the ball the length of the court and it went out of bounds without touching anyone, allowing Belarus to inbound the ball under their own basket with almost three seconds on the clock.
Belarus fed Veremeenko who, despite being sandwiched between two Italian defenders, managed to get off a shot that banked in for an eight-point lead at half-time.
“We played badly and it’s very difficult to explain our performance today,” said Italy’s Federica Ciampoli, who hails from Ortona.
“This was supposed to be a game like any other, so there was no added pressure, but we were blocked on offense and we couldn’t react.”
She then revealed that Lambruschi had met with his team immediately after the game.
“Lambruschi spoke to us and thanked us for the work we have done,” Ciampoli added.
A decision on Lambruschi’s future with the national team will not be made until after the tournament.