GB STUN SLOVAKIA AS FINALS EDGE INTO SIGHT

Great Britain’s women produced arguably their most impressive performance since the national side was re-formed four years ago, defeating Slovakia 70-63 in Kosice.

Led by 26 points from Jo Leedham, Tom Maher’s side delivered a brilliant second-half showing to move to 3-1 in their Eurobasket qualifying group – and within tantalising distance of a place in the 2011 finals in Poland.

No wonder the Australian coach pumped the air as his team huddled in unison to celebrate their accomplishment. “We fought for everything,” said Rose Anderson. From start to finish.

After a series of inconsistent showings, this was more to Maher’s taste despite the early jump that the hosts got in the opening quarter.

Kim Butler and Leedham hit consecutive three-pointers to set the early tone but Slovakia quickly found their stride.

A 15-3 run took the group favourites 26-16 in front at the start of the second period with their advantage increasing to as much as 11 points.

Butler set about eroding the gap but she had plenty of support. Maher ordered an intense press and it unsettled the Slovaks, forcing consecutive turnovers that saw Chantelle Handy convert on a fast break to shift the momentum.

Leedham hit anther three, soon followed by a NBA-distance trey from Julie Page. The home side, now up only 35-31, were rattled enough to take a time-out with 3.50 left. And then the deficit was cut further when Anderson downed two foul shots.

It became tit for tat. Natalie Stafford was rewarded for her defensive persistence with a score and ten as the seconds ticked off, Leedham held the ball for an isolation drive, dishing off to Page for the lay-in as GB brought the game within reach at 38-37 at half-time.

What may have pleased Maher more is that GB held their opponents scoreless for over 3 minutes in the third quarter. Page and Leedham gave his team their first lead since the early stages before Katarina Hrickova hit a free throw with 6.50 gone.

Leedham then produced a fake that left her open for another three and down 45-41, the Slovaks, for the first time, looked rattled. Even inside, the Brits were holding firm, their height deficiencies in the middle hidden by a pesky man to man defence that forced mistakes which allowed Azania Stewart and Rachael Vanderwal to capitalise on successive possessions.

The Limerick guard has proved a useful addition to the GB squad. She was only added mid-way into the team’s training camp after her eligibility became known to team officials but she is finding ways to be effective off the bench.

So too her colleagues. Anderson made it 6-for-6 from the line. Jeyana Wade-Frey made her first two count. Up 53-50 heading into the fourth, it was as much as Maher could have asked for.

But the Slovaks were not finished. Ivana Jalcova put them back in front but then Stafford made four more foul shots to hold back their charge. The Australian-born guard, another late arrival, was proving inspirational. She capped a 6-0 run that took GB 63-57 ahead with 5.12 to go. Suddenly, there was not only a chance of victory but also of erasing the 9-point head-to-head advantage the hosts gained on their trip to Birmingham earlier this month.

It didn’t quite happen. But it was close.

Butler kept the cushion at 6 but the pressure remained. Maher took a time-out with 1.41 left to calm his players down for the final assault from the hosts. They held firm.

Jo Leedham hit 6 three-pointers

Three times in a row, Slovakia came down the court. Three times, they came up short and it was left to Steph Collins to ice the win from the foul line.

“We started the game with a shoot-out, and Slovakia won that comfortably, going in ahead by ten at quarter-time,” said Maher.

“For them to score 26 in the first quarter, and only 25 in the second half is a telling stat.”

And the Australian singled out Leedham – who shot 6/9 from three-point range – for praise.

“Jo Leedham was sensational but it really was a team effort,” he added. “We’re pretty sure this is Britain’s first win over Slovakia, so we are all pretty proud.”

GB could seal qualification on Thursday in Liverpool when they host Germany at the Echo Arena. Their hopes received a boost when the Germans lost 74-69 at home to Ukraine.

Notes:  Britain suffered a 76-67 home loss when they hosted the Slovaks at the NIA ten days ago.

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