Entering the home stretch of the group stage in 2022 FIBA EuroBasket, Croatia had a decisive matchup in front of them with host nation Italy. Even without newly-minted Boston Celtic Danilo Gallinari, who tore his ACL in the exhibition games leading up to the tournament, Italy is arguably second best team in Group C behind Greece.
Speaking of Group C, before we get into Croatia’s match, let’s point out that with Estonia beating Great Britain earlier in the day, Croatia punched their tickets to Berlin, Germany for the Round of 16. They’ll move onto the knockout stage for certain, just a matter of positioning within the group; they can finish as high as 2nd.
Croatia had a tough time finding their footing with four straight missed threes to start the game, and Phoenix Suns forward Dario Saric turned the ball over three times in the first three and a half minutes.
Conversely, Italy hit some gorgeous shots to start out on an 10-2 run before Summer Suns alum Jaleen Smith found Saric in the corner for Croatia’s first made three.
Italy forward — and recent Pelican and Maverick — Nicolo Melli had a blazing start for the home team, scoring as many points (7) as all of Croatia for the first five and a half minutes of the contest.
pretty disappointed with dario saric's defensive effort here. jaleen smith is absolutely fighting his tail off trying to front nicolo melli then as dario comes into help, he just doesn't put forth the same quickness or physicality. almost should've let jaleen take it pic.twitter.com/W2RBPzqJbZ— damon allred (@iamdamonallred) September 6, 2022
Reported Suns trade target Bojan Bogdanovic helped lead a small push by Croatia down the stretch of the first quarter to pull within 5 after the buzzer. Among the strong moments he had was this sidestep pull-up three on the secondary break:
As the game got closer and more physical in the second quarter, it reached a bit of a boiling point with Melli getting called for a technical after expressing frustration with a no-call. Italian head coach Gianmarco Pozzecco was even more animated on their sideline throughout the quarter.
Turnovers mounted for Saric and Croatia, including this errant crosscourt pass attempt:
By the end of the first half, the game had hardly any flow. It felt like you couldn’t go to one end of the court and back without a whistle or a turnover. Croatia was lucky to be down just 8 points at the half with a score of 34-42.
Croatia had a chance to fight back early in the second half, and they pulled within 1 on this nice find from Bogdanovic to Ivica Zubac off of a blitzed pick-and-roll possession:
Bogdanovic continued to take over a bit in the third, helping Croatia take the lead with this really solid mid-range space creation and shot makin’.
And followed it up with a stepback three out of the pick-and-roll, capping off a 7-0 Croatian run.
Even after a last second layup by former Pinnacle High and University of Arizona guard Nico Mannion, Croatia held a lead going into the fourth, though only by 4.
In an isolation battle between former Phoenix residents, Smith got the best of Mannion, turning something into nothing for an and-one prayer:
However, as the game wound down, Croatia’s perimeter defense faltered, allowing wide open threes that Italy took advantage of, and even when Croatia was closing out hard, it was too hard, like in the case of this Bogdanovic foul against Alessandro Pajola:
bojan with an all time bad closeout pic.twitter.com/Fkwpr3PlYc— damon allred (@iamdamonallred) September 6, 2022
Saric hit a three with 63 seconds remaining as part of a last ditch effort to pull back within reach, but newly-signed Utah Jazz wing Simone Fontecchio responded with one of his own as the dagger. Italy came out on top, 81-76.
- D. Saric: 10 pts (2-4 2P, 2-4 3P, no FTA), 8 rebs, 3 asts, in 29 min
- B. Bogdanovic: 27 pts (4-6 2P, 4-11 3P, 7-7 FT), 5 rebs, 3 asts in 37 min
- I. Zubac: 13 pts (4-6 2P, 5-7 FT), 6 rebs, 1 blk in 21 min
- N. Melli: 19 pts (7-14 2P, 4-10 3P, 2-2 FT), 5 rebs, 3 asts, and 2 blks in 28 min
- S. Fontecchio: 19 pts (2-7 2P, 4-10 3P, 3-3 FT), 2 rebs, 2 stls in 32 min
Group play will conclude on Thursday with Croatia facing off against Ukraine. Both teams have already qualified for Berlin and the matchup only affects positioning and seeding for the next round of play. It’ll tip at 5:15 a.m. AZ time on ESPN+.
Italy plays their final home game of the tournament before moving onto Berlin and will face off against winless Great Britain at noon AZ time, also on ESPN+.