A year after Belgrade, Italy shocked the world once again

Orazio Cauchi
Staff Writer
2022-09-13 08:30

A year after Belgrade, Italy shocked the world once again. The team coached by Gianmarco Pozzecco sent Serbia back home with an incredible performance, built, once again, on defense, character, and intensity rarely seen at this level. 

Credit: FIBA

In July of 2021, I was spending my first official days as a member of the BasketNews.com team. The website had officially begun its experience in the last few days of June, right before the beginning of the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Italy was about to play in Belgrade in the pre-Olympic tournament, the last chance to earn a ticket to Tokyo. No one really expected Italy to pull off a miracle in Belgrade. Despite several absences, Serbia looked like the best team in that tournament, and they were playing at home. All the odds were in favor of them.

Italy, though, surprised everyone and shocked Serbia in the final of the pre-Olympic tournament with an offensive performance for the ages. They scored 102 points, with three players contributing 20+ points (Mannion 24, Polonara 22, Fontecchio 21).

Player of the Game
Marco  Spissu
Marco Spissu
Points 22
Accuracy 7-11
Rebounds 4
Assists 6

That loss forced Serbia to several changes, including the decision to part ways with coach Igor Kokoskov and the will to hire a full-time coach like Svetislav Pesic to prepare better for future tournaments.

Changes did arrive for the Italian national team in the following months as well. Despite earning the ticket to Tokyo and reaching the quarterfinals at the Olympics, the relationship between coach Romeo Sacchetti and the president of the Italian federation, Gianni Petrucci, kept deteriorating until the federation decided to replace Sacchetti with Gianmarco Pozzecco just a few months before the beginning of EuroBasket 2022.

Since Italy had to host one of the groups of the EuroBasket in Milan, there was a lot of excitement around the team. But coach Pozzecco's side lost a crucial game against Ukraine and finished the group in the worst position possible, fourth place.

That meant that Italy had to play in the Round of 16 against the first team of Group D, Serbia, one of the strongest candidates to win the title. Compared to the team that showed up in Belgrade a year before, Serbia could count on their superstar Nikola Jokic, a two-time NBA MVP, and on Vasilije Micic in a better overall condition compared to last year.

As it was understandable, not many people thought Italy could have a chance against Serbia. Sure, coach Pozzecco's side had shown a great effort against Greece in Milan's group, forcing Giannis Antetokounmpo and his teammates to a close win. Still, they also had lost a game against Ukraine that, on paper, was supposed to be within the team's reach.

The beginning of the game against Serbia followed the script that many expected. Serbians looked in control of the game, Nikola Jokic did an impressive job on the boards, and Serbia reached the biggest lead of 14 points during the second quarter.

But Italy was able to resist the first offensive wave created by Serbia and went into the locker room down by only 6 points, which was an absolute steal considering how the game had developed up to that point.

In the first half, Serbia often punished the defensive decisions made by the Italian national team, especially in pick & roll situations, always finding some open shooters in the corners.

However, everything changed in the second half.

In the second half, Italy did a much better job defensively on Serbia. They started to make it more difficult for the Serbians, finding easy solutions in pick & roll situations. Italy also did a much better job in close-outs on the perimeter, and they took advantage of the lack of offensive solutions shown by Serbia at one point.

I still don't understand why Serbia didn't try to use Micic more as a post option since he had a huge physical advantage over Spissu and Mannion, but Pesic never really explored that option during the game.

Italy doesn't have a physical presence like Jokic in the post, so they started to use pick & pop in basically every possible way offensively, and Serbia struggled to contain those situations. With five players constantly out on the perimeter, the Serbian national team started to feel the fatigue factor more and more.

When Jokic is forced to get out of the painted area and needs to chase players on the perimeter, he becomes less of a threat to the opponents. When the NBA superstar was on the bench trying to get some rest, Italy constantly killed the Serbian second unit, where Nikola Milutinov looked like a distant memory of the dominant player that he was before all the injury issues he had in the recent past.

Jokic, in the end, had 32 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 assists, but he remained on the court only for 28 minutes. With the difficulties shown by Milutinov when he was on the court, the Denver Nuggets superstar probably should have played even more minutes.

During the third quarter, Italian head coach Gianmarco Pozzecco was ejected due to a second technical foul by the team bench, having previously received one himself.

At that moment, Italy became united as a team even more. Pozzecco remained on the court for at least another minute just to greet and embrace all his players, and he went out of the court crying.

"When coach Pozzecco was ejected, everything changed," Marco Spissu said after the game. "When he left the court, he told us 'win this game for me' and we did it. He deserved this."

That's the spirit of Pozzecco. Very few coaches can identify with their players like him. Most of his players will go through a wall to make him happy.

Spissu knows Pozzecco even better than the other players. He had already worked with Pozzecco in Sassari, and the two always had an amazing relationship. After Pozzecco's ejection, Spissu became almost unstoppable, and the Serbian players couldn't find a solution to contain him.

He had 16 points with 5/5 shooting from 3-point territory. The Italian point guard was also a part of the team that won the pre-Olympic tournament in Belgrade, but during that previous game against Serbia, he didn't even play a single minute. What a difference a year can make.

Between the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, Italy took away all their certainties from Serbia, and the game became incredibly similar to the one played in Belgrade a year ago, with the Italian national team dropping one three after another and Serbia losing all their offensive rhythm, struggling to limit their opponents' ball movement.

Nicolo Melli played an incredible game, both offensively and defensively. His block on Nikola Jokic during the fourth quarter was probably the ultimate sign that Serbia wasn't going to win that game.

The Olimpia Milan player finished the duel with 21 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. He made everything easier for his teammates, and compared to other games, he took more responsibilities offensively.

After the game, Melli told Sky Sport that he wasn't that surprised about the win.

"You need to believe in your value, otherwise, what's the point of being here?" Melli stated after the game.

"We didn't start this game thinking we would lose. There's no disbelief because I believe a lot in this group of players. I always said that when we play as a team, we can be very dangerous," he said. "Of course, not every night can be special as this one, but no matter what will happen at the end of this tournament, we'll bring tonight's emotions with us because what we did tonight it's not something that happens every day."

Right after the end of the game, coach Gianmarco Pozzecco's show officially began. Staff and players had to try to keep him out of the court since he had been ejected, so he couldn't really enter the court again.

He hugged and comforted every single Serbian player, he jumped on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was about to enter the court to prepare for Greece's game, he then hugged and kissed him on the cheek, saying 'I love you, Giannis'.

In a post-game interview, coach Pozzecco also stated that Nicolo Melli is the best player in the world (a reminder that right after the game against Ukraine, he had said that Nico Mannion would have become one of the best players in the world) and that the win against Serbia was the most important one of the history of Italian basketball.

That's a typical day if Gianmarco Pozzecco is your head coach. That's his style, his pride and passion are no match for everyone else, he's just on another level. One can also argue that he should be able to contain himself more in such big events, and that's definitely an aspect of the discussion.

But it's also evident that a character like Gianmarco Pozzecco can bring a huge spotlight to Italian basketball, a movement that has often struggled to gain attention for itself and can only benefit from such behavior in terms of media attention and international coverage.

All the reporters from every country wanted to speak with Pozzecco after the win against Serbia, maybe not entirely for the right reasons. However, a personality like him attracts more attention than anyone else who could've been seated on that bench.

The players celebrated with coach Pozzecco's credit card in their hands, another typical Pozzecco move (he did the same thing when he was coaching Sassari, and his players reached the finals of the Italian league).

Now they'll focus on the game against France on Wednesday. Maybe all the emotional and mental energy used against Serbia will leave Italy without enough resources to overcome France. Maybe the team coached by Gianmarco Pozzecco will make another masterpiece.

To be completely honest, the result Italy will obtain against France is not even that important because, on Sunday, they shocked the world once again and proved that the underdog mentality is not only a clichè, but it's something that this team feeds on.

Without a real center or a true superstar, they beat one of the strongest teams in the tournament, playing their own brand of basketball and showing energy and pride.

And when Paolo Banchero becomes an integral part of this group, well, you might want to stick around to see what this team can really achieve moving forward. For the moment, they'll be content with being the only team that finished in fourth place in their group and advanced to the quarterfinal.

After all the fuss generated by this victory has subsided, a victory for the ages will remain in the mind of every Italian basketball fan.

When Italy won the football FIFA World Cup in Germany in 2006, an Italian TV commentator said, 'The sky is blue over Berlin'.

On Sunday, coach Pozzecco and his guys painted the sky over the German capital once again.

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