Great Britain opened their EuroBasket Women qualification campaign with a 56-49 victory against Belgium in Worcester.
Rachael Vanderwal’s three-pointer 1:40 from the end – which surprisingly proved to be the final score of the game – settled 2015 qualifier and sent the team off on a three-game road trip around Europe on a high.
Vanderwal, with Temi Fagbenle and Azania Stewart, two of the veterans on a young-looking GB squad missing star player Johannah Leedham and forward Chantelle Handy, brought GB home after Belgium threatened for three quarters but fell apart in the last 10 minutes, scoring just two points and nothing in the last six minutes and 62 seconds.
GB had led by eight in the first quarter and by 10 in the second, but both times got reeled in by Belgium, for whom captain Sofie Hendrickx scored 10 and centre Laurence Van Malderen added nine.
In the third quarter, Belgium grabbed the lead, only for Stewart, whose 10 points and eight rebounds were her best contribution of the summer, and Vanderwal combined in a 10-4 run that gave the initiative back to the hosts.
In the final quarter, Fagbenle completed her 14 points with a foul-line jumper after GB’s hustle had forced a five-second violation at Belgium’s end after she had missed a free throw. That came with 2:57 remaining and was a savage blow for Belgium, who missed nine shots and a pair of frees in the last period as they almost gave up the ghost completely.
Vanderwal had posted notice that this was going to be her game in that quarter. She hit a three in her seven points and also took over much of the ball-handling duties from Stef Collins. She finished with 17 points in what many saw as her best game for the team.
“I was totally playing on confidence,” she admitted afterwards. “The coach said ‘if you get the open shot, take it,’ and that’s what I did. I tried to bring a lot of energy to the team and defensively get some stops.”
Vanderwal has been one of the triumphs of the GB programme – graduating from a role player coming off the bench to a bona fide starter alongside point guard Stef Collins.
“We’ve been here for a number of years now and we have to step up here in the leadership roles and take the team on our backs and ‘bring it’ to every game,” noted Vanderwal.
The team now faces a gruelling 11-day road trip taking in Macedonia, Lithuania and the return game with Belgium before playing the last two games in Worcester. Bizarrely, they fly back to Luton for a stopover en route from Macedonia to Lithuania.
Coach Peter Buckle recognised how crucial getting the first win on the board. “It’s most important – not just because of the three-game road streak,” he said.
“Getting win number one is important. I think you saw tonight that there’s a lot of good things going on, but that we’re still a work in progress.
“But it’s good for us to get that win – it gives us a bit of confidence. We know what to expect and we know the things we have to work at to get better.
Buckle know it would be useful for GB to bank a road win or two to take the pressure off whn his squad return to Worcester, but is not picking and choosing those wins.
“We know what’s going on in the background in Lithuania and now Belgium, but in four days we have a game against Macedonia in Macedonia and that’s going to be a tough game,” he said.
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