JENNINGS: SURVIVAL MUST BE TOP TARGET

Damian Jennings is targeting Division A survival for Great Britain at the European Under-20 Championships in Serbia, despite the run of injuries which threatens to make the coach’s job all the harder.

It is, he admits, the primary challenge – to keep his young side in the top tier after they earned a berth among the big guns for the first time in last summer’s promotion campaign.

The bulk of that squad has moved on. That touch of unpredictability surrounds Jennings’ side as it prepares for Thursday’s opening tie in Novi Sad against Slovakia and subsequent first round games against Spain and Latvia.

“They’re certainly a different group to last year and certainly, I think the uniqueness of the chemistry of last year’s group wasn’t as instant with this one,” he reveals. “But they’ve been really attentive all the way through. We’ve probably learnt as much from video sessions and performance analysis sessions as we have on the practice floor and in games. I think we’ve set the tone with the nine games we’ve played.”

Katrin Chiemeka is one of the chosen 12 for Serbia (Dan Wooller)

That included a win over France, the defending champions, in a three-game series across the Channel. Victory over the Netherlands. Solid showings against Austria last week in spite of the holes left in a roster by injuries to Temi Fagbenle, Becca Allison, Gemma Bullard and Kathryn Taylor.

All four are short of full fitness but Jennings has taken the gamble that they can contribute while managing their minutes. Most, he hopes, will be OK for the Slovak game, their fellow arrivals from Division B providing what looks to be the best opening tie that GB would have wished for.

“Maybe,” the coach says. “We have nine test games behind us so if we don’t know what we’re about by now, we probably aren’t ready. But I definitely feel we can tackle any of them.

“I guess if someone had asked me which way round I wanted it, yeah, I’d have probably gone with Slovakia first game out. But then again, we won’t have scouted them with their new team. They’ll know a bit more about us than we’ll know about them.”

Expectations, deliberately, have been played down. Three of the four teams in the first phase will progress into a 12-team second round where three of Belarus, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Getting through is enough to avoid the threat of relegation.

It is perhaps too much to expect that Britain can reach the knock-out stages, given their lack of past form and stand-out individuals. Then again, we thought that at the recent EuroBasket Women, where their senior counterparts, with a little more experience and self-belief, might just have made their way into the quarter-finals.

“I don’t think you can go out thinking that you won’t progress,” claims Jennings, who watched events in Poland with keen interest. “I don’t think the senior women did. You have to be in these situations to experience them. One of the things the senior women will have learnt is how to finish off games in those situations. But you don’t learn that until you’re in the moment. You learn for next time.

“I’m not unambitious for this group. But if you’re asking if we’re going for silver, bronze, eighth, tenth, whatever, for me we have a first round to get through. And then that takes you into 1-12. But it’s a game at a game time and we have silver and bronze medallists from last year in Spain and Latvia, and last year’s B finalists who owe GB some payback.”

In his final warm-up game, Jennings started with a quintet of Kristie Sheils, Rebecca Allison, Renee Busch, Katrin Chiemeka and Erin McGarrachan. Small but versatile, they served a specific purpose. But with the physios doing what they can, the line-up may change for the team’s first competitive tie.

Jennings is a curious as any to see how they perform when there is something meaningful at stake. It will be Britain’s first crack in the elite division. It might also provide a barometer for the future.

“It’s new territory,” he acknowledges. “We’re definitely excited about that challenge. First up, you’re looking to survive in Division A in your first year. But we’ve got a style of basketball in Great Britain which causes problems for other teams. So we’re pretty ambitious in every game that if we play our best basketball, we can cause problems.”

 

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