By David Hein
The 2003 champions Lithuania remained undefeated in their quest to regain the EuroBasket title by beating Italy 79-74 to improve to 3-0 in Group F and take a giant step towards reaching the quarter-finals in Madrid.
Rimantas Kaukenas led Lithuania by pouring in 22 points, including a three-pointer with 3:12 remaining to spark a 9-2 run to finish off the game. Sarunas Jasikevicius was hampered with a left groin injury for much of the second half but tallied 13 points, three rebounds, four assists and two steals in 28 minutes.
"Italy are a great team and we expected it to be a tough battle. We're glad to have the win but definitely there's still a lot we can improve on in our game," said Lithuania big man Linas Kleiza, who chippped in eight points and nine rebounds.
"We were a bit too relaxed at times. We have to stay more focused and try and hold on to our leads."
Lithuania built up an 11-point lead midway through the first quarter but allowed Italy back into the game. It was the third straight game in which the Lithuanians were unable to control a double-digit lead. Ramunas Butautas's side nearly blew a 21-point third quarter lead against Germany, who had numerous chances to pull ahead in the final preliminary round match.
|Bargnani's 15 points and seven|
rebounds weren't enough
"It's just something we have to improve on. Luckily none of the teams against whom we lost our big leads managed to capitalise on it and beat us but it's getting close," Kleiza added.
Italy, who were out-rebounded 44-29 and made only 23% (6-of-26) of their three-point shots, now have a real fight on their hands to qualify for the quarter-finals. Not only do the 2003 bronze-medallists need to win out their final two games, they also are dependent on other results as well.
"We have taken steps forward on defense and offense with respect to our previous games but today we faced a very strong Lithuaina. We gave everything but we made mistakes late in the game and we were punished," said Denis Marconato, who scored 10 points for the Italians.
"I am nevertheless confident because the team is getting better and this is a good sign for the next game."
Andrea Bargnani collected 15 points and seven rebounds while Gianluca Basile had 13 points and four rebounds in a losing cause.
The Lithuanians started the game strong defensively, holding the Italians scoreless for more than five minutes in using a 13-0 run to pull out to a 15-4 lead with 3:30 left in the first. Basile answered with five straight points to help close to 19-11 but trailed 21-13 going into the second quarter.
Italy kept trying to scrap themselves back into the game and Lithuania continued to fend them off. But Italian guard Matteo Soragna stole Kaukenas's pass in the waning seconds and banked in a long three-pointer at the half-time buzzer to trim the deficit to 40-39 at half-time.
Carlo Recalcati's side pulled even with the four-time EuroBasket champions at 44-44 on a three-pointer by Marconato. And the Italians grabbed the lead 48-47 on two foul shots by Marco Mordente.
The final seven minutes of the third period saw nine lead changes and Lithuania led 62-61 going into the fourth after Siskausas's jumper with 22 seconds left.
The see-saw affair continued throughout the fourth period, and things were even at 72-72 when Kaukenas drained a three-pointer to give Lithuania a 75-72 advantage with 3:12 remaining. That shot sparked a 9-2 run to finish the game as Italy turned over the ball twice in the final 2:20 to give up any final hope.
Lithuania next face France on Monday while Italy take on Turkey.