ZEE FULLY ENGAGED, BRINGING A-GAME

Great Britain’s women have not played a European qualifying match for almost a year – and it feels like an age.

Their last meaningful game was the 71-52 defeat to Italy in Lucca a year ago, which brought with it a shutting of the door from this year’s EuroBasket finals.

Now in Manchester, Saturday evening brings a game to start them off on the road to the 2019 – and while the return of a fully-fit Temi Fagbenle and the presence of scoring machine Johannah Leedham will always attract headlines, Azania Stewart would like to remind you that she’s playing pretty well at the moment.

Stewart, now 28, was one of GB’s few plusses of that rainy, misty, miserable night in Lucca. Her 19 points and 13 rebounds showed she is growing in stature as a European forward/centre.

“That was just a testament of how [GB coach Jose Maria Buceta] has a lot of confident in me and lets us play free and wants us to succeed,” she recalls. “That was knd of the answer to the equation for how he had been coaching me – he was letting me be free on the court. I really played a great window last time. And I’m playing well with my club.”

Israel, Greece and Portugal are three teams GB have not faced for a while.

“They’ll be good,” she warns of Israel. “They’ve got a couple of key players that can really light it up., It’s a different style than we usually play against, they’re kind of quick and …chippy – sometimes that’s difficult to play against.”

Stewart has come to approve of the new twice-a-season qualifying windows that the men’s and women’s game have adopted in Europe.

“I used to like the summer get-togethers – I frowned on these windows when they first started,” she admits.  “But they come at a good time because you’re two and a half months into your season and  getting that lull where you’re missing the family and then you get this break and get back together. So it became a pleasant break – you’re seeing your friends, you’re doing something you love and chasing a common goal so it just breaks up the season.”

It means a lot of work when the team convenes in the mid-season breaks, however.

“We just need to get going – that’s the bad thing about the windows and not the summer,” she admits. “You just have to get everything together quick. But Temi’s looking great, Jo’s in good shape…”

Not that Stewart’s season is a drag. She is with TTT Riga, in Latvia and it’s one of the best places she’s played in so far, she says.

“The city is a great city to be in – there’s stuff to do but the team itself is very historical – a lot of years behind them and a good set-up. They’ve treated me well and I’m playing well and I feel really happy.”

In fact, the club has won more European titles than any other women’s team and the history is not lost on Stewart. “There is one gym – we don’t play there but one day a week we practise there – and it’s set up with pics of all the historical players,” she says. “It’s cool – they really care about basketball. The standard’s high, but we’re doing well in the EuroCup and the Eastern European League.

There’s still a chance she could find herself up against a familiar face, she says, if Leedham’s Villeneuve D’Ascq fail to make the later stages of the EuroLeague and drop down to join Riga in the EuroCup under the new rules.

Stewart is, of course, the player who inspired a nation’s sympathy with her tearful appeal over the withdrawal of funding from the national teams after the 2012 Olympics. She’s been careful to avoid public shedding of tears since then.

Until August this year, when her boyfriend, Denver Broncos right tackle Menelik Watson, proposed to her. Midway through a preseason game, the one-time Manchester Magic prodigy-turned-NFLer was playing and with Stewart sat in the front row.

“Honestly, it was just a special moment between us. He just wanted to do it,” she said. “He just said after: ‘I just asked to marry you and the whole world blew up,’ I said “What were you expecting – you did it in front of thousands of people?’

“It’s looking like a big wedding – some of the [Great Britain] girls will be at it – I’ve got time, I don’t plan to get married until 2019.”

But follow that – an engagement on live television? “Some of my guy friends were like ‘well thanks, Zee, you’ve set the standard so high, how are we ever going to beat this, – you know, our girlfriends are going to be disappointed…’”

Very much the sporting fiancée, Stewart wears a (black) rubber engagement band that hold the space but can nonetheless can survive multiple trips to the shower in a sporting day.

“It’s practical for right now because I don’t want a great big how-many-carat ring on my finger while I’m playing. If I lose this it’s just a bit of rubber,” she adds.

“But they’re actually kind of expensive – they are like $20-30 dollars for a piece of rubber. But I’ll have my diamond soon…

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