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Saturday, August 26, 2006
Italy-Lithuania train wreck incredible to watch

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN Insider

SAITAMA, Japan -- Halfway around the world, I spent half of the day watching the most exciting day yet at the FIBA World Championship. And when I tell you I saw something Saturday that I've never, ever seen before, that's not even half of the story.

In fact, it's only a quarter of it.

There were four games, Argentina handling New Zealand with ease despite a dreadful day shooting the 3-ball, Turkey executing its fourth quarter offense better than Slovenia to make the final eight, and Spain (my pick to win the whole thing) putting Darko Milicic and Serbia-Montenegro in a huge early hole that they could never climb out of.

Gianluca Basile
Gianluca Basile, No. 5, didn't feel good about how he finished the game.

Then there was the doozy of them all, an Italy-Lithuania game in which the pressure in the final 2 minutes was too much to handle for everyone -- even the guy running the clock.

I'll sum up the bizarre ending of the Italy-Lithuania game with one sentence: Of the final 15 free throws attempted in the final 2 minutes, 13 of them were missed. Lithuania won it, and Italy will be reeling from its choke job for a long, long time.

Those final two minutes took a long, long time, too, so let's just go through the ending step by step, play by play. To try to sum it up any other way wouldn't do it justice.

The game was extremely tight and extremely physical throughout, and a 3-pointer by Marco Bellinelli -- the player U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski (and myself) liked so much a couple nights ago -- pulled Italy within 68-65 with 2:05 left.

And then the pressure started getting to everyone.

Italy's Richard Rocca, a Princeton grad with a degree in electrical engineering, missed a pair from the line with 1:35 left. Just 13 seconds later, Lithuania's Giedrus Gustas made one of two for a four point lead. Bellinelli hit a jumper with 55 seconds left to cut Italy's deficit to 69-67. Arvydas Macijauskas missed a 3-pointer and Linus Kleiza grabbed the offensive rebound, but then threw the ball away.

Big opportunity for Italy, but guard Fabio DiBella tried to throw a home run pass and threw the ball away instead. Gustas missed a layup, and Bellinelli rebounded and was fouled by Darius Songaila with 8 seconds left. He had a chance to tie it -- a precursor of things to come, but missed the first foul shot before making the second.

As the ball was inbounded, Lithuania assistant Donnie Nelson (yes, the same Donnie Nelson who is GM of the Dallas Mavericks) jumped up and shouted that time had ticked off the clock. The Lithuanians were already celebrating but they brought the ball back and the game was delayed for several minutes while the timekeeper unsuccessfully tried to reset the clock to 7.8 seconds.

The refs eventually threw up their hands and had them resume the game anyway, and Italy fouled Kleiza with 7 seconds left. He missed both, but Songaila grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled, so he went to the line and -- yep, you guessed it -- missed both. On the battle for the rebound, Italy's Angelo Gigli tapped the ball into the wrong basket, putting Lithuania ahead 71-68.

Bellinelli was fouled on the inbounds pass with 2.8 seconds left, so he needed to make the first and intentionally miss the second in the hopes that Italy could tap in the miss and tie it.

Problem was, Bellinelli missed the first one.

When he missed the second one intentionally, Italy managed to tap the rebound out to the 3-point line, where Gianluca Basile grabbed it and tried a desperation 3-pointer. It never had a chance, but one of the referees ruled that Macijauskas had fouled Basile in the act of shooting, sending him back to the line with one more chance to tie it.

So what did Basile do?

He missed the first, and then the second, and then the third.

"Today we have seen all our inexperience and hence, since our trip to Japan was supposed to give us experience, I hope my players will learn something from it," Italy coach Carlo Recalcati said.

As I said before, I've never seen anything like it, and I think it's safe to say I'll never see anything like it again.

Memo to Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo: If this is the way all Italian players perform in the clutch, TRADE ANDREA BARGNANI IMMEDIATELY.

Here's a look at the other three games:

Spain 87, Serbia-Montenegro 75
The Spaniards held Serbia to 10 points in the first quarter and were in control pretty much the rest of the way, thanks in large part to what they did at the end of the first half. First, Pau Gasol converted an alley-oop dunk with the clock ticking down to make it 40-31, then Jose Calderon stole the inbounds pass and immediately turned to shoot a 3. He was fouled, and he knocked down all three for a 43-31 halftime lead.

Serbia never threatened in the second half, although Darko Milicic had a fairly strong game with 18 points and 15 rebounds.

Serbia ran its offense through him like the Lakers and Bucks once ran theirs through Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but Darko's hook shot -- he attempted a ton of them -- isn't quite what Kareem's was.

This was the first time in this tournament that I had seen Spain in person, and my overriding impression was that the team rarely, if ever, had an offensive possession that ended in a bad shot. Pau Gasol (19 points and 15 rebounds) was shaky as ever from the line, and his brother, Mark, looks like Pau but with a couple dozen cheeseburgers around his gut.

Spain and Lithuania will meet in the quarterfinals Tuesday.

Argentina 79, New Zealand 62
Manu Ginobili's team missed its first 15 3-point attempts, and it still didn't matter.

After the Tall Blacks pulled within nine in the fourth quarter, Manu drained a 3, then slashed through the lane for a three-point play. Luis Scola fed a nifty pass to Fabricio Oberto (10-of-15 from the field, same as Ginobili) for a layup, and Pepe Sanchez hit a pair from the line before threading a pass to Scola (10 points, eight rebounds) for a layup.

Just like that, they were up 21.

Nobody moves the ball as beautifully as these guys. I almost want to change my gold medal pick, but Argentina always has one bad game in these tournaments, and Spain has beaten them nine straight times.

Turkey 90, Slovenia 84
Before the game, I ran into NBA superfan Jimmy Goldstein on the concourse outside the Saitama SuperArena, and he was at his wit's end as to how to find his usual seating accommodations. Not 30 minutes later, I glanced across the arena and saw him in the front row. That guy can git-r-done better than Larry the Cable Guy.

Beno Udrih and Rasho Nesterovic hit a bunch of clutch shots early in the fourth quarter, but Bostjan Nachbar rushed a 3 that would have tied it with 18 seconds left, and Tau Ceramica shooting guard Serkan Erdogan was Mr. Clutch when it counted most, making four free throws the rest of the way to ice it. He finished with a game-high 24.

Just a hunch, but I'm guessing David Griffin finds a way to get Erdogan on the Phoenix Suns some day soon.

More tomorrow, including Team USA's game against Australia.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA and international basketball for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.