by Paul Nilsen
Spanish Coach Jose Hernandez watched his team avoid a third straight loss and win a spectacular 76-71 shootout with Italy as both teams booked their places in the final eight of the tournament.
In yet another incredible match-up, a near capacity crowd were treated to a real classic as Italy, still without injured center Alessandra Formica shot the lights out from downtown to keep pace with Spain.
Italy dropped a staggering 12 perimeter bombs on Spain and it left Hernandez admitting he was relieved that his team had passed a tough test of their credentials.
"We had to win the game because we could not lose three consecutive games. I thought my players passed a big mental test today and that was very important."
"Italy shot the ball incredibly well and I am not sure what the percentages were but I bet it was incredible."
"We have been very up and down as a team in this tournament and this was an important experience for my players."
With chants if ‘Italia, Italia' ringing around the Arena, both teams were lively and very active at both ends of the floor in the early exchanges with Italy going 9-6 ahead. That was until back to back three-pointers by De Alfredo and Diaz handed the initiative to Spain as they embarked on a stunning 11-0 run.
That burst of scoring completed by De Alfredo who finished a tough play with an inside score and the bonus point after being fouled hard going to the hoop,
Hustle play backdoor with a put back by Veronica Dell'Olio to break the barren spell but soon Spain had opened a ten point lead at 21-11 after making yet another outside score, this time De Alfredo yet again.
It briefly looked like an early blowout could be on the cards but a great baseline move Elettra Ferretti ensured the margin was the same heading into the second period.
Coach Lucchesi had to call a time-out midway with six minutes left to half-time, his team on the ropes at 34-20. It worked as nice ball movement against the zone found Francesca Dotto for an open three that she knocked down - much to the relief of the home crowd.
It helped revive Italy and for the next few minutes it began raining threes as they went on an 18-6 run to get within just two points. Sara Bocchetti, Elettra Ferretti and Stella Panella all made big outside shots but Spain were scoring themselves inside as Italy fouled in their enthusiasm to get stops.
At 40-38 Italy were hopeful but Spain scored eight straight points with Andrea Vilaro proving she has more than just range by completing a tough move having made a strong drive to the hoop.
It stayed at 48-38 going into the second half and both teams left the floor feeling different emotions. Without any real true inside presence and with Spain scoring from just about everywhere, it meant that the Italian backcourt would really have to shoot the lights out in the second half.
Italy managed to do just that, playing with heart and passion much to the delight of the Napoli faithful that by midway through the third they had drew level with Spain.
Moments later the Arena erupted when a pumped up Bocchetti drilled a triple from the corner to hand the home team the lead at 55-52 and complete a remarkable 17-2 run and set up a thrilling last 15 minutes of action.
In the last part of the third, the tempo eased ever so slightly and that suited the Spanish who got back the initiative with a 10-3 burst. However there was no let up in the outside shooting of Italy and Mandelli delivered another bomb to give Italy a 63-62 edge going into the last quarter.
Vilaro again showed her willingness to come inside for Spain and she got her team underway with a great baseline dribble and finish. It was fantastic stuff at both ends of the floor.
With five minutes to go, another triple from Bocchetti handed Italy a 68-67 lead and only a Vilaro jump shot was made for Spain until the final minute. After missed two free-throws by Marta Masoni, Itziar Llobet kept her cool to put Spain ahead by three points.
Italy weren't quite finished with their incredible effort from the arc and Dotto drained a three-pointer from the corner to tie the game at 71-71 and send the crowd into raptures.
However it lasted only literally seconds as Vilaro showed why she is in the running for tournament MVP with a triple from the corner down the other end to give Spain their lead back once more.
As Italy fumbled and contemplated a second loss and fourth place in the group meaning a quarter final with Russia, Diaz kept her cool from the line to seal a thrilling Spanish win and a game with Czech Republic.