Italy was about to collapse, then Simone Fontecchio happened

Orazio Cauchi
Staff Writer
2023-09-01 13:25

After the third win in a row against Serbia in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023, Italy has now put itself in a better position to advance. But the real hero of the night was Simone Fontecchio, who once again proved himself as one of the best International players around.

Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

With less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter, Italy looked hopeless. The Azzurri were down by 16 against Serbia, and the chances of staying alive in the competition appeared to be very slim. 

The team coached by Gianmarco Pozzecco ended the first half only down by 2 points, with the game being on the line. But at the beginning of the third quarter, the story of the game changed. Serbia started to be more effective offensively, and, most importantly, they limited Italy's ball movement. 

Nikola Milutinov dominated the paint, and Italy didn't seem to have an answer for him. Polonara appeared to be lost on the defensive end of the ball, so Pozzecco was forced to rely on Ricci and Severini. 

With less than 3 minutes before the end of the third quarter, the Azzurri were gasping for air. Then, Simone Fontecchio happened. 

With Italy down 60-44, Fontecchio scored 7 points in a row, taking all the offensive load on his shoulders and giving the Azzurri some room to breathe. Finally, Italy started to play better on defense, protecting the rim very efficiently, and offensively, Gigi Datome's moment came. 

This is the last official tournament to see Datome playing basketball. The veteran forward has already announced his retirement and wanted to finish his career playing for Italy at the World Cup. 

This season was extremely complicated for him because of the injuries, he missed a big portion of the year but returned just in time for the Italian league finals, where he played a crucial role in Milan's Game 7 victory. 

With the national team, his role is to come off the bench and provide some quality minutes with his shooting and experience. And that's exactly what Datome was able to do tonight.

To finish the third quarter, he scored 8 points in a row. First, a dunk in the open court after Serbia's defense completely lost track of him. Then, two 3-pointers in a row that cut Italy's deficit to just 3 points. 

In the final period, Italy had a completely different awareness. From the get-go, they knew that they could win the game, and Serbia was now just at a short distance. 

Serbia kept looking for Bogdan Bogdanovic, who, however, ran into a very difficult night at 3-point shooting, finishing only with 1/13 from deep.

The Atlanta Hawks guard didn't shy away from his responsibilities, though, and began to attack more at the rim, considering his difficulties from outside. 

On the other hand, Fontecchio was already having a fantastic game up to that point, became simply unstoppable. 5 minutes and 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter, two-point jumper over Dobric: bucket. 

4 minutes and 41 seconds remaining, another step-back jumper over Dobric: two points and Italy up by 4. 

With 3 minutes and 21 seconds left on the clock, once again against Ognjen Dobric, Fontecchio creates separation, steps back, and makes another two-point jumper. Italy up by 5. 

Then, the final masterpiece. This time, Bogdan Bogdanovic is on him, Fontecchio, from the side, tries to attack the middle of the painted area.

Bogdanovic holds his position well, Fontecchio goes up for a floater, and somehow, he's able to remain in the air just a tense of a second more than Bogdanovic, nothing but net, and Italy is up by 4. 

Coach Andrea Trinchieri, who is working as a commentator for DAZN in Italy, probably gave the perfect definition of Fontecchio's performance against Serbia: offensive supremacy. 

His numbers only confirm coach Trinchieri's statement: 30 points, his career-high with the national team, 9/11 from 2-point, 2/4 from 3-point, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal. Just an amazing performance overall. 

After the game, Fontecchio didn't really care about his numbers but praised the spirit of this team and the ability to never give up, even when the game looks over. 

"We did a fantastic job, especially in the third quarter when we were down by 16 points," Fontecchio explained. "We didn't give up, that's the key. We don't care if we're down by 16 or if we're up, we just never give up, that's who we are as a team. We keep fighting until the very end."

During the post-game press conference, Italian NT head coach Gianmarco Pozzecco joked about Simone Fontecchio's value after this game. 

"I want to remind everyone that this guy will be a free agent next summer, and I'm his new agent. We're not going to accept anything less than $30 million per year, I also want to make it clear that this will be the first case in which the manager will take a 30% cut off the deal."

On the free agent market, Fontecchio most likely won't command as much as Pozzecco would love, but this game has even more cemented Fontecchio's status as one of the best international players around right now. 

When Italy needed him the most, he answered and delivered. But the most important thing for Italy is that after the difficulties experienced against the Dominican Republic and the Philippines, this team found again the strength and the necessary defensive approach to overcome a team like Serbia. 

This group's moral qualities remain extremely high;d especially when things are going wrong, they simply refuse to go down. It's pretty much the opposite of Serbia: a fantastic team when everything is going according to the plan, but a completely different one when issues start to appear. 

For the Serbian side, this was the third loss in a row in a major FIBA competition against Italy. The first one was in 2021, in Belgrade, at the Pre-Olympic tournament, when the Serbian head coach was still Igor Kokoskov, and Italy was coached by Romeo Sacchetti. 

Italy dominated that game and secured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics. The second one was last year at EuroBasket, when Italy defeated Nikola Jokic and his teammates in the Round of 16, creating another major shock to Serbian basketball. 

It seems that in recent years, Italy has really become Serbia's bogeyman. Coach Pesic's team at EuroBasket and here at the World Cup, started largely with the odds stacked against them but has then been unable to break down Italy's resistance. 

What is certain is that today, Italy once again proved that it is a very tough team to face for anyone.

Now, we just have to figure out who will be able to advance to the next stage since, everything is still up for grabs between the Dominican Republic, Serbia, and Italy,. 


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