by Dan Casey
|Rolands Smits shone for Latvia with a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds|
Latvia knocked out Italy with a 76-66 win to secure their first Quarter-Final appearance since 2001.
An explosive first quarter saw Latvia register 31 points and establish a 10-point lead. Italy threatened throughout the contest, but Latvia held on in a tense final quarter to secure the fourth Quarter-Final spot in Qualifying Round Group F.
After the game, coach Nikolays Mazurs explained that the Latvian team had planned for Italy's flexible defense: "We knew that they would start with a man-to-man defense and they would switch to zone. We designed a flexible offense for this, and we made some big three-point shots."
An 18-6 run in the first period propelled Latvia clear, despite the best efforts of Italian guard Alessandro Maccaferri who scored 14 of his game-high 25 points in the opening quarter.
Nils Gertsons scored a tough lay-up and Latvia forced a turnover before Rinalds Malmanis scored at the end of the quarter to make the score 31-21 to Latvia.
Davis Geks scored a three-pointer late in the second period to extend the lead to 13, but Federico Di Prampero returned the favour and Maccaferri drained a jump-shot at the buzzer to cut the lead to 8 points, 44-36 to Latvia.
Latvia maintained their lead through a tight third quarter, but Maccaferri cut the lead again with a tough lay-up and then Nicola Akele hit a three-pointer from the corner to make the score 63-62 to Latvia.
But as momentum built, Italian coach Antonio Bocchino received a technical foul. Geks hit both free-throws and from the next possession, Geks connected from long-range. Latvia's defense forced the Italian team into missed shots down the stretch, and a three-pointer from Kristap Plavnieks extended the lead to 10 and secured Latvia's progress in the tournament.
Geks tied Maccaferri's mark with 25 points, including seven three-pointers. Rolands Smits recorded a double-double for Latvia with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Di Prampero added 19 points for Italy.
Coach Mazurs was proud of his players: "It's a huge result for us, to be in the top-8 teams in Europe." Latvia will play hosts Czech Republic in the quarter-final in Pardubice on Friday.