SAPPORO (FIBA World Championship) - A determined Italy beat Slovenia for the first time since 1997 to secure their second straight victory at the FIBA World Championship.
Slovenia scored the first 10 points of the game but Italy fought back for an 80-76 victory as the Azzurri, one of the four teams to receive wild cards to play in Japan, remained undefeated in Japan.
Slovenia started strong but slowly lost power as Italy kept their head while Ales Pipan's men looked rattled in the second half.
Italian promising youngster Marco Bellinelli had a game-high 26 points, 10 of which came in the third quarter to inspire his team to make a comeback.
Rasho Nesterovic was his team's top scorer with 17 points and eight rebounds.
The win was all the more special for Italy coach Carlo Recalcati as it was the first time he beat Slovenia since taking over the reins of the team back in 2001.
"Finally," said a delighted Recalcati.
"I am delighted with this win but I think even if we had lost I would have been satisfied with my team's performance.
"We have proved to be a competitive side against a very talented side."
Slovenia ruled the tempo in the opening stages and went on a 10-0 run before Denis Marconato added his team's first four points three minutes into the game.
Italy went into the second period trailing 22-14, with Bostjan Nachbar having made eight points in the first period.
With Gianluca Basile, who was Italy's top scorer against China, unable to find his shot with Nesterovic keeping a close eye on him, it was down to Belinelli to take centre stage.
Belinelli's nine points allowed Italy to reduce their deficit to 28-25 before Primoz Brezec's three pointer allowed Slovenia to go into the break with a 43-36 lead.
Italy came out strong and went ahead for the first time in the game four minutes into the third period with Belinelli's three pointer giving them a 47-45 advantage.
Jaka Lakovic soon leveled the score with a perimeter shot while Denis Marconato replied with the same token to allow Italy to go into the final quarter with a 59-56 advantage.
Nesterovic came to his team's rescue with his two straight dunks allowing Slovenia to regain the lead 68-66 with five minutes left to play.
With less than two minutes remaining, Luca Garri tied the game 71-71 before Matteo Soragna made a big three pointer to give Italy a 74-71 advantage with 1min 9seconds left to play.
Nesterovic missed a three pointer and an offensive foul by Sani Becirovic put Belinelli on the line, who made both his free-throws to give his team a 76-71 lead.
Lakovic reduced the deficit with a three pointer while Soragna replied with a lay-up for a thrilling finale.
With 15 seconds left on the clock, Lakovic made a two and was fouled in the process by Mordente but he failed to take advantage and the score remained 78-76 for the Italians with 15seconds left on the clock.
Lakovic fouled Soragna to stop the clock but the experienced Italian player made both free throws to keep Italy 80-76 up. Lakovic then missed a lay-up and Nesterovic was forced to foul Belinelli, who missed both shots but Slovenia failed to take advantage.
"We have to congratulate Italy," said Lakovic.
"In the end it was defence that killed us. We let the Italians take the lead but the game is played for 40 minutes not 38.
"We have to learn from the mistakes."