Despite a heartbreaking loss, Italy proved they belong to European basketball elite

Orazio Cauchi
Staff Writer
2022-09-17 13:00

Italy was on the verge of defeating France in the quarter-finals, but they couldn't kill the game in the last few seconds of the regular time. Despite the loss in overtime, Italy proved that they're clearly among the best teams in Europe, even if it has its own limits. 

Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

Sometimes life can take you to the top and then, in just a couple of days, can really knock you down. That's the essence of many sports, including basketball. It is also a lesson that Italy learned the hard way after their loss in the EuroBasket quarterfinal against France.

On Sunday, Italy celebrated its masterpiece, an amazing victory against Serbia. On Wednesday evening, the team coached by Gianmarco Pozzecco was crying because of a heartbreaking loss against France, a game Italy almost had until the last few seconds of the fourth quarter.

Every loss hurts a little bit, but some losses hurt way more than others. The one Italy suffered against France is the type of loss that will sit in the players' minds for a while.

With 16 seconds left in the game, Italy had a 2-point lead and two free throws to shoot. It looked like they were about to seal the game. Unfortunately for coach Pozzecco's side, one of their best players, Simone Fontecchio, missed both free throws. Moments later, Thomas Heurtel tied the game and sent the match to overtime.

After that moment, the game slipped out of Italy's hands, and France, exactly like they did against Turkey, advanced thanks to almost perfect overtime. Right after those missed free throws from Fontecchio, coach Pozzecco tried to comfort his player, but it was clear that this moment left a mark on the team. After that missed opportunity, the chances of winning the game decreased substantially.

It would be easy to trace everything back to Fontecchio's two missed free throws, but the truth is that Italy struggled mightily to score and execute offensively in the last minutes of the game.

In the last 3 minutes of the last quarter and throughout the overtime, Italy scored only four baskets from the field, with the rest of the offensive production coming from the free-throw line.

Pozzecco's side also struggled mightily to contain Thomas Heurtel during the fourth quarter and overtime. As per Basket Data Scouting, the French point guard created 24 points between the fourth quarter and the overtime.

The former Real Madrid guard did a lot of damage to Italy's defense, both in pick&roll situations and on the perimeter. He finished as the top scorer for France with 20 points, 8 assists, 1 rebound, and 1 steal. 

Italy's two top scorers, Simone Fontecchio and Marco Spissu, who both finished with 21 points, were also the two players on the roster with the worst plus/minus performance. Fontecchio finished with -19, while Spissu ended the game with -15.

The only three Italian players who had a positive plus/minus number at the end of the game were Nico Mannion (+8 in 8 minutes on the court), Giampaolo Ricci (+2 in 13 minutes), and Gigi Datome (+7 in 17 minutes). 

Just like in the Olympic Games last year, Italy's path to the semifinals was interrupted by France. But while that last year's loss was, in many ways, expected and didn't leave too many bruises, this one will definitely hurt more since Italy was on the verge of securing their first semifinal at EuroBasket since 2003.

For sure, Gianmarco Pozzecco, who just turned 50 on Thursday, would have loved to celebrate with his players by going to the semifinals and not boarding a plane to return to Italy.

But despite the loss, the coach had nothing but pride for his players and the type of commitment they showed during the tournament. 

"You guys can't even imagine how proud I am of my players," coach Pozzecco said after the game against France. "Everyone gave 100%. As of right now, I'm suffering for them, not for me. I ask every single one of you who will write about this game to put a hand on your heart and give the proper credit to these guys. They gave 100%, do the same."

The hug between Pozzecco and Nicolo Melli, who had fouled out of the game a few seconds before the end of the game, is the perfect image of how united this team was and describes the relationship between the coach and his players. 

Nicolo Melli, who was the heart and soul of the team throughout the entire tournament, also shared some positive vibes despite the loss against France. 

"I'm proud of this group today, just like I was at the Olympics in Tokyo," Melli said to Il Corriere dello Sport. "We know exactly our value, so a single win or loss doesn't change our mindset. We would have needed 45 perfect minutes to win against France, we only had 40. But I'm pretty sure of this, moving forward, we'll achieve big things."

Melli finished the tournament averaging 12.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3 assists per game, but his impact went well beyond the numbers. Offensively and defensively, the Olimpia Milan's forward was the real glue guy of the team, often dealing with the other teams' superstars and providing his excellent basketball IQ on the offensive end. 

His words about the future of this national team definitely have a point. The core of this group is still in the prime of their careers: Melli is 31, Polonara is 30, Spissu is 27, Fontecchio will be 27 in December, Tonut is about to turn 29, Pajola is 22, Mannion is 21.

Most of the group that played at EuroBasket will most likely continue to represent the Italian colors in the next major events -- the FIBA World Cup in 2023 and the Olympic Games in 2024, if Italy qualifies for those events, of course.

More doubts remain on the future of players like Gigi Datome and Danilo Gallinari with the national team. Datome will turn 35 by the end of November, while 34-year-old Gallinari needs to recover from another ACL injury.

It's unlikely to see a long-term future for these veterans with the national team. However, both are extremely appreciated by the team and the coaching staff, so their presence can't be excluded if they'll be ready physically. 

Italy has a good group of young players growing that might represent the future of this national team. Gabriele Procida, who recently signed a multi-year deal with the Alba Berlin, and Matteo Spagnolo, who'll play on loan with Aquila Basket Trento this season, have already experienced the national team and were part of the group this summer before their cuts.

Other players with potential are Leonardo Okeke, who recently signed a multi-year deal with Olimpia Milan but will play on loan with Joventut Badalona for the next two years, and Abramo Canka, who'll play with UCLA after his experience with Lokomotiv Kuban.

But it's pretty clear that Paolo Banchero represents the real game changer for the future of the Italian national team. The no.1 pick in the last NBA Draft owns an Italian passport and has followed EuroBasket from the USA.

He has been in touch with the Italian federation and confirmed his will to play for Italy, but finding the right timing for him to come over and actually help the team will not be easy.

EuroBasket was out of the question since Banchero has been involved in the draft process, and the Magic were not going to give him up before his first season in the NBA.

Riccardo Fois, who's part of Gianmarco Pozzecco's coaching staff and has helped the federation to follow the Italian/American prospect, has been instrumental in the recruiting process of Paolo Banchero. He believes that integrating him inside the group could be extremely important for the national team's future. 

"I know that he saw us," Fois said. "He could also become a part of this special group. We will have to find ways to meet each other, but the goal is to integrate him into this group as well. He is a player that can really help us."

The hope, of course, is that Banchero will be available for the FIBA World Cup in 2023. Italy has yet to qualify for that tournament, but so far, they're on the right path to do so.

The opportunity to introduce Banchero to an international audience (the 2023 FIBA World Cup will be hosted by Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia) could be a huge deal for Italy, especially in terms of media exposure. 

Gianmarco Pozzecco will remain at the helm of the team, as the president of the Italian federation Gianni Petrucci has already confirmed. The Italian head coach, though, needs to improve his mental aspect for future events.

During EuroBasket, Pozzecco, too many times, was on the verge of exploding or getting ejected for arguing with the referees.

Pozzecco was a passionate player, and he definitely brought that element of his game into his coaching career. He cares a lot about his players and wants to deliver for the national team, but he needs to understand that some of his behaviors need to be toned down a little bit. Otherwise, he'll always be at risk of jeopardizing his own team and job. 

The last year represented a huge step forward for the Italian movement, first playing again at the Olympic Games for the first time after 17 years and then showing the ability to play at the same level as some of the biggest forces of European basketball at EuroBasket despite the clear limits of the roster. 

While that loss against France will still hurt for a while, it looks like Italy can think about the future with the hope of becoming one of the major forces in international basketball for the first time after many years.

The structure is in place, and now it's time to add the last pieces to the puzzle. Italy and Orlando Magic share a common color, and in the near future, they might also share the same star player, the last missing piece. 

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