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9 Cecilia Zandalasini (ITA)
Jeff Taylor's Eurovision
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Italy and Zandalasini win more fans after painful loss

VALENCIA (Jeff Taylor's Eurovision) - What's that, you've never witnessed the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? Just watch a replay of Saturday's game between Latvia and Italy in Prague at the FIBA EuroBasket Women and you'll see an example of each. And especially the latter!

Down 11 points midway through the second quarter, Latvia fought back against Italy and scraped a 68-67 victory to clinch a top-six finish and a spot in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018.

The highs and lows of international basketball with Latvia and Italy

We neutrals are happy for Latvia. We're glad Gunta Basko-Melnbarde, Kristine Vitola, Aija Putnina, Elina Babkina, Anete Steinberga and the rest of the Latvian players have made it to the World Cup. Vamos!

We're happy for those Latvian fans that traveled to Prague and cheered on their team, and for the coach, Martins Zibarts, who has been rewarded for the terrific job that he's done in helping this Baltic side make history. It's the first time a men's or women's team from Latvia has qualified for a World Cup.

We neutrals, though, are just like the rest of Italy. We're heartbroken for the Azzurre. In a game that had four lead changes in the final 1 minute and 22 seconds, Andrea Capobianco's team was within touching distance of victory and a spot in the World Cup.

The Italian women last played at a World Cup in 1994. Their last Olympic appearance was in 1996. 

Italy's 21-year-old power forward Cecilia Zandalasini, in the midst of the greatest FIBA EuroBasket Women debut of all time and averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds, scored on a brave drive from the right with 15.5 seconds remaining for a 67-66 advantage.

Latvia called timeout to draw up a play. Capobianco, meanwhile, instructed his players to let as much time run off the clock as possible before fouling.

That's right. Italy were going to foul. It's standard procedure. The Latvians knew, the fans knew and the referees knew. A team will not go to the free-throw line on a non-shooting foul until the opponents have committed five fouls.

Capobianco's strategy would Latvia less time to execute a potential game-winning play after the fourth team foul had been committed.

So what happened? When play resumed, the player Zandalasini was guarding, Kitija Laksa, set a pick on Raffaella Masciadri near the free-throw line that freed up Steinberga. Zandalasini switched to guard Steinberga, who then received a bounce pass from Aija Putnina.

Zandalasini acted on her coach's instructions and fouled Steinberga. One of the three referees blew his whistle and then raised his arms to signal an unsportsmanlike foul.

Italy's bench erupted. There were cries of incredulity.

Steinberga calmly sank both free-throws for a 68-67 lead and Latvia retained possession because of the unsportsmanlike foul. After an Italy timeout, she was again fouled and this time missed two attempts.

Italy rebounded, raced up the floor and veteran Masciadri attempted a 3-pointer that looked good, only for the ball to rim out. Latvia claimed the narrowest of victories.

A colleague reminded me that one call from the referee does not decide the outcome of a game, but also said an unsportsmanlike foul in that situation simply cannot be made.

Rather than dissect the foul, you need to look at the play on livebasketball.tv and decide for yourselves.

Latvia have won and will go to the World Cup. The biggest disappointment for me is that Zandalasini, a player that has caused a major buzz in women's basketball, will miss out.

If it doesn't kill you, the saying goes, it makes you stronger. Italy won't be at the World Cup, yet the unsportsmanlike foul and the agonizing defeat has galvanized an entire nation behind its women's basketball team.

Zandalasini, previously known in basketball circles but not really a celebrity in the sports world, is now a household name. Italy are in the newspapers and the social media.

There is attention on the game because of Italy's defeat, probably a lot more than if the team had won.

The defeat to Latvia is but the latest disappointment for Italy's women. They've been on the wrong end of a lot of big results in recent times, including just last year at the U20 European Championship in Portugal where Zandalasini carried Italy on her back and nearly led them to a famous win over Spain in the Final.

Down 16, the Italians stormed back and Zandalasini knotted the game at 69-69 with an eye-popping 3-pointer that left no doubt that she was the next big thing.

Zandalasini was MVP of the U20 European Championship Women 2016

After Zandalasini swatted a shot, Spain rebounded and drew a foul on the put-back attempt with just one second to go and made two free-throws.

Italy threw a perfect inbounds pass to Zandalasini, who made like Jerry Rice and caught the ball before launching a potential game-winning 3-pointer yet the ball softly hit the rim and stayed out.

Yes Latvia won, but Italy have too because a lot more people in the country are now right behind this team.

Italy will finish no better than seventh at FIBA EuroBasket Women, yet there is no doubt about the MVP of this tournament, at least for me. Her name is Zandalasini.

Jeff Taylor

FIBA's columnists write on a wide range of topics relating to basketball that are of interest to them. The opinions they express are their own and in no way reflect those of FIBA.

FIBA takes no responsibility and gives no guarantees, warranties or representations, implied or otherwise, for the content or accuracy of the content and opinion expressed in the above article.

Jeff Taylor

Jeff Taylor

Jeff Taylor, a North Carolina native and UNC Chapel Hill graduate, has been a journalist since 1990. He started covering international basketball after moving to Europe in 1996. Jeff provides insight and opinion every week about players and teams on the old continent that are causing a buzz.