Great Britain ended their stay at EuroBasket Women with a 85-79 win over Croatia in Vendee on Sunday. But their hopes of a quarter-final berth were extinguished earlier on, when Serbia defeated the Czech Republic.
It left Damian Jennings’ side in fifth place in Group F, ending up with three victories out of six in France.
A return they might have accepted before the tournament began. But having seen at close hand how small the margins ultimately were which separated them from the knockout phase, there will be some frustration at the chances missed.
At least they went out on a high note and with a higher placing than in 2011, or indeed of ever before.
And Jo Leedham proved inspirational with a double-double, grabbing 26 points and 10 assists, along with nine rebounds.
“There was an awful lot to play for, you are playing for your country,” said Jennings.
“We did make history today, as a Great Britain side, even though we didn’t make it to the quarter-finals. We belong in this second round now that we have got that first win in this round.”
Six straight points from Croatia erased an early deficit but a three from Rachael Vanderwal began a 16-0 run from GB, holding their opponents scoreless for over six minutes.
Kim Butler, making her 75th and what she confirmed will be her final appearance for GB, capped the burst with a three that opened up a 24-13 lead with 7:58 left in the second period.
Jennings turned to his bench. It came up trumps. Rose Anderson, hitherto a marginal presence, delivered seven points in quickfire time as the advantage grew to 38-21.
But the door was opened just a little wider with two late defensive lapses, with Emanuela Salopek’s long-range conversion trimming the deficit to 44-34 at half-time, and then another three from Ana Lelas bringing the Croats within five early in the third.
One of the key problems which Jennings has faced at these Euros is the reliance on Leedham for an offensive save. The guard, who has re-signed for Bourges next season following her flirtation with the WNBA, temporarily leaves France with her reputation further enhanced but if progress is to be made, she needs extra help, especially with Butler taking her leave.
Azania Stewart has shown glimpses when avoiding foul trouble. As GB tried to pull away, she came up trumps inside. Her potential tandem with the absent Temi Fagbenle is something which offers hope for the future.
Lauren Thomas-Johnson is another who has rebounded from missing out on the Olympics. She put GB 64-54 in front going into the fourth period but it became a game of give and take as the fight began in earnest for a consolatory win.
A 13-2 Croatian run left their opponents with a precarious 69-67 cushion with 5:09 left before Leedham and Butler delivered a much-needed retort.
It became a scramble to get over the line. Once again, the margins were small but at the last, it was GB who secured the spoils, despite 17 points and 15 rebounds for Ana Lelas.
“A lot of people said this game wasn’t for anything and it didn’t matter but I definitely disagree with that,” said an emotional Butler, who added 17 points and went out on a high.
“We played for pride, we played for our countries.”
Their final standing, however, means Britain will be forced to qualify for the 2015 EuroBasket Women in Hungary and Romania through next summer’s qualifying tournament.
Lessons, said Leedham, will be taken forward.
“It was a really tough game emotionally but we pulled through in the end and we did our country proud,” said Leedham. “But it’s a little disappointing and bitter sweet in the end.
“This is the elite level. You have to come to play. You can’t leave your fate in other people’s hands. You have to be hungry for it. And it’s 40 minutes. You can’t play 35, it has to be 40.”
The Serbs’ 75-59 victory over the Czechs emphatically secured the last vacancy in Group F, joining already qualified France, Belarus and the Czechs in moving onto the knockout stages in Orchies, which start on Wednesday.
After the first quarter, Serbia led 15-11 and went as much as 46-18 ahead in the third. And although a Czech rally brought them within ten in the fourth, it was too little, too late.The third game in Group F on Sunday saw unbeaten France pushed for 25 minutes before a 13-0 run propelled them to a 58-50 victory over Belarus.
Final standings, Group F. 1. France (5-0), 2. Serbia (3-2), 3. Belarus (3-2), 4. Czech Republic (2-3), 5. Great Britain (2-3), 6. Croatia (1-4)
Steph Gandy was handed her first start of the tournament, replacing Azania Stewart
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