One duel dominated this game and it was Jonas Valanciunas and Lithuania who emerged victorious
Jonas Valanciunas utterly dominated Andrea Bargnani from the start but a remarkable resurgence by the Italian nearly saved his side. The Toronto Raptors man had an off-night against Georgia as he looked to still be feeling the effects of illness picked up during the group stages. Here, he was back to his best and laid waste to the Italian centre for three quarters. After that, well, Bargs went big time.
It was the clash of the hot messes. Lithuania had been unimpressive throughout their run to the last 8 of EuroBasket 2015 while Italy, well, they were Italy. On a good day, they could beat anybody. On a bad day they could go down to the worst team here. Fundamentally this game was going to come down to Italy’s shooting because every game involving Italy comes down to their shooting. There was however one big weak spot for Italy. Bargnani was a game time decision. He started but he was going up against a version of Valanciunas that looked looked to have, finally, fully recovered from the virus that hampered him through group play. Bargs has played with heart in this tournament but he’s still been a liability for his side. Valanciunas, he’s been Jonas. He gets it done whatever way he can. Raps fans are still unsure of him but his statistical arc, through NBA and FIBA ball is clear. He’s getting better, a lot better, and he’s more than got a handle on this style by now. Right from the off he was a nuisance on offence. JV was a force here. He didn’t have to do much work on D, he was enjoying enough success against Italy’s open door excuse for defence.
Italy could count on Danilo Gallinari to do the heavy lifting, the question was whether Marco Belinelli would take his fair share. Early on, Bello delivered with a pair of threes and match Valanciunas’ haul of 8 points for the quarter. Italy shot 8 of 15 for the frame. The good version had just about shown up early but they trailed 21-20 after 10 minutes.
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The deep ball was working for Italy early in this one. They had 5 threes from 4 different scorers in the first 12 minutes. With Lithuania hitting 4 fouls early in the second, Italy started to attack the inside more. Marco Cusin went virtually unchallenged twice as Lithuania dialled back the physicality. Simone Piangiani however was determined to keep Bargs matched up on Valanciunas. When JV sat, so too did his shadow. When he was in, back came Bargs. Given how one-sided this contest was proving it cut out the Italian advantage inside. Bargs tried to get a little bit chippy inside by JV isn’t the kid he once was. Valanciunas took the first shot and was ready to defend himself the next time Bargnani thought about it. The Italian wisely backed off. At the half Bargnani was getting handily dealt with by JV but Lithuania only led 37-36.
The beat down continued from JV in the third. This was just a one-man slaughter. Dirk played angry against Bargnani but didn’t have anywhere near the dominance of Lithuania’s rising star. JV hit his double-double quickly as Lithuania moved into an 8 point lead. Bargs had his second moment of the game as Italy fought back. Having dunked over Jonas Maciulis in the first half, he made a three to cut the deficit to the miminum midway through this frame. Valanciunas was such a threat now that even off the ball he was making life easier for the LTU offence. Such was Italy’s need to cover him. space opened up for the Lithuanian back court to cut inside. A miss by Valanciunas with just under 4 minutes to go in the frame illustrated his domanince. One step and Bargnani was on the floor. JV missed the open lay-up but Bargnani looked broken.
So it fell to the outside game. Italy’s only reliable source of success here. Gallo and Bello both went off from deep and Italy, despite taking a pounding on D, were back in front. A Mantas Kalnieitis three restored Lithuania’s advantage. Once more, when the horn sounded, the led by the minimum 60-59.
The fourth started off pretty quietly but a Mindaugas Kuzminskas three woke up the crowd. Bargnani, of all people, was keeping his side in it with success from the line. The stat line hid how tough it was for him out there as the big man moved to 15 points for the game. JV took notice and immediately dunked. Bargnani wasn’t done, he responded in kind right away. Finally, after getting taken apart like a rage doll for the guts of 35 minutes it was Bargnani who was dragging his side back into it. Italy were in the bonus. They could attack the inside again and this time Bargnani wasn’t an easy option to take on and he ended up going 7 of 11 from the field in the second half.
Valanciunas was responding but Bargnani had found a new lease of life. Maybe it was pride, maybe he had been keeping something in the tank, but Bargnani was suddenly the difference in this game. Lithuania had a response, Maciulis scored from deep. It had been a remarkably efficient game for Lithuania from three point range. Italy were relying more on quantity because their earlier accuracy had left them.
Then Valanciunas fumbled. With his side up 2 and 43 seconds on the clock the big man mis-read a pass and sent it out of bounds. Gallo tied it on the next possession. Italy had a last gasp chance to win. Belinelli missed and this one went to overtime. JV struck first in what was, to say the least, a nervy opening to the additional period. A Kalnietis three put Lithuania in control once more. This time JV got to the line and hurt the Italians. He had one the duel on the stat sheet, now he wanted to bring his men into the semi finals. Another Valanciunas score and LTU led by 7. He had done his job. Lithuania, who have never missed an Olympics, have a chance to earn their spot against Serbia on Friday.