|Alex Righetti (Italy)|
And Pau Gasol carried Spain on his shoulders past Israel, 78-64, to set up a dream semi-final against the Azzurri with a place in the final not the only reward, but also a berth in the Olympics.
The Italians, champions four years ago, lost their opening two games of this summer's competition and looked to be headed for an early return home but they have since won three straight, including upsets over Germany and now Greece.
"We had a dream of finishing fifth,” said Recalcati.
“We are in the semi-final but we haven’t qualified for the Olympic games, this is not over.”
Serbia & Montenegro have already locked up an Olympic berth as they are the world champions while Greece qualify as hosts.
The Greeks, trumpeted as the best defensive team in this summer’s competition, were ultimately undone by their inadequacies on offence.
“Our performance was not good,” a disconsolate Greece coach Yannis Ioannidis admitted afterward.
“We lost a game against a team that shot 36%. We had 16 turnovers against seven for Italy. You can’t win a game when you score 59 points.
“You won’t win if you are afraid to shoot and score. In the end, against their zone defence, Dimosthenis Ntikoudis was the only player who dared to penetrate.”
Italy are one of the sides without an NBA player in the squad, yet it hasn't seemed to matter. They clearly bonded as a team this summer, winning the Efes Pilsen World Cup II tournament in the buildup to the championships and now showing they can overcome the odds after getting out of the gate slow.
|“||We played without heart||„|
The unheralded big man from Udine, Giacomo Galanda, is a notable example.
The Italian centre barely caused a ripple in losses to Slovenia and France but he scored 16 huge points against Germany on Monday and led Italy with 14 against the Greeks in a game that remained close until the end.
Ten times the game was tied, and there were 14 lead changes.
|Italy coach Carlo Recalcati had two reasons to celebrate after the game: the win and his birthday|
Dimosthenis Ntikoudis did almost everything right for Greece, scoring a game-high 18 points, but he missed four free throws - two of them when the game was in the balance.
The final minutes of the game were full of drama and appeared to take a debilitating turn for Italy.
Galanda fouled out with four minutes and 17 seconds on the clock and fellow big man Denis Marconato picked up his fifth personal almost immediately after.
The Italians are proving to be resilient, though.
Gianluca Basile, bothered by a thigh injury this week, hit two free throws to push the lead up to 56-52.
Theodoros Papaloukas missed a shot but grabbed the offensive rebound and scored to shave the deficit to two again for Greece.
But Basile scored on a tough running layup with a minute and a half left to push Italy's lead up to 58-54.
Ntikoudis scored to close the gap again to two and he had a chance to tie the game after being fouled with 40 seconds remaining but missed both free throws.
Italy failed to box out Greek captain Georgios Sigalas who came in for the offensive rebound, and he found Nikolaos Chatzivrettas behind the three-point line but the guard missed and the Azzurri rebounded.
Recalcati’s men still left the door open.
Greece had to foul to stop the clock and point guard Massimo Bulleri and Basile would only convert two of four from the line for a 60-56 advantage.
Ntikoudis hit a three-pointer and stopped the clock with 6.3 seconds on the clock and Greece fouled Matteo Soragna.
He made both for a 62-59 lead.
Greece were able to get the ball in the hands of Demetrios Papanikolaou for a last-second three-point attempt but his desperation shot failed to even hit the rim.
Ioannidis, clearly distraught after the setback, said: “We played without heart.”
“The way we played we deserved to lose the game.”
Sigalis added: “Our goal was to go to the semi-final but now we have to play for fifth place.”
Gasol sealed Spain’s victory with an offensive explosion in the fourth quarter.
With his side leading 61-57, Gasol scored 14 consecutive points - six of them on thunderous slam dunks.
He made eight of his 11 shots from the field and and nine of 11 from the free throw line.
Gasol has now scored 20 or more points in Spain's four wins in Sweden.
Another low post player for Spain, Jose Garbajosa, who scored 13 points in the win.
"I never stop dreaming and now we have reached the semi-finals we are not going to renounce anything - we aspire to the gold medal," said Spain coach Moncho Lopez.
"Our aim is to climb to the highest part of the podium, although our first aim must be to qualify for next year's Olympics."
Lopez also saluted Israel for their execution during the first three quarters.
|“||At the moment, all I am thinking about is winning the gold medal||„|
|Juan Carlos Navarro|
"We knew how they played and we planned a very serious game, even though they gave us some real problems," said Lopez.
"We didn't play our best basketball, but that was not just down to us, it was thanks to Israel's merits as a team.
"Nevertheless, we knew how to control our nerves," he said.
Juan Carlos Navarro made no attempt to hide his ambition after reaching the semi-finals.
"At the moment, all I am thinking about is winning the gold medal," the dynamic Spanish guard said.
France take on Lithuania in the other semi-final.