Great Britain’s Tokyo 2020 dream is over following a 79-69 loss to Spain.

Ample tears and torrid heartbreak in Belgrade for Chema Buceta’s side who end with an 0-3 record in the Olympic qualifiers as the reigning European champions took the victory required to formally secure their ticket to Japan out of this group in tandem with China and South Korea.

Knowing that triumph, by any margin, would send them through at the Koreans expense and qualify outright for an Olympics for the first time, GB threw all they could at the Rio 2016 silver medallists in the hope of an astonishing and priceless upset.

Not to be, though.

The Brits were left to rue 30 sub-par minutes of play on the previous afternoon when a solid Saturday showing against South Korea would have surely seen them cement their berth rather than coming up short.

“The games against China and Spain, we did a great job but it was difficult for us because they are better teams,” Buceta declared. Inexperience costly, he ventured.

“But yesterday against Korea, we were not able to understand the game … they had an exceptional game, shooting three pointers. We were not able to react. That is the difference – between knowing, and doing.”

Sport is cruel but habitually meritocratic.

GB, ultimately, twice had their destiny in their own hands but could not capitalise. To be in this wondrous position, after all the funding wrangles, the off-court politicking and a scandalous lack of recognition, was a momentous feat.

And yet still, unfortunately, they will surely leave Serbia with the frustration of what could – and possibly should – have been accomplished.

“Obviously it didn’t end the way we wanted to,” admitted Temi Fagbenle who corralled a game-high 21 points on 9/17 shooting. “It’s a big shame. We’ve been working for this moment for a very long time.

“Ultimately, it is just very disappointing. We fought the whole tournament to the last. It’s testament to our character, not giving up.

“We just fell short.”

It was not for the want of trying.

Karlie Samuelson’s early three put GB 5-2 in front but it was a cushion that evaporated quickly.

Laura Gil keyed a spurt of 12 unanswered points in the opening period and the Spanish would never trail again, GB a step slow in providing one another with defensive help.

Back to back scores from Chantelle Handy polished off a 9-2 run that trimmed the gap to 18-16 at the end of the first quarter but with Fagbenle grabbing a much-needed break during the middle of the second, Lucas Mondelo’s side accelerated again.

Seven points in barely a minute became a 13-5 burst which had Spain 36-22 ahead. With China crushing South Korea 100-60 earlier in the day, they only needed to avoid a historically huge defeat to advance to Tokyo.

Fagbenle was named to the All Star Five (MAP)

Trailing 40-30 at half-time, Buceta demanded improvements in both defence and offense.

Instead, he witnessed his compatriots slickly strengthen their grasp with an immediate 9-2 spell. As much as 17 behind, GB had dug themselves into a hole.

Impressively, and unsurprisingly for anyone who has marvelled at the character of this team over the years, they grabbed shovels and dared to hope.

Down 49-33, Fagbenle spurred a retort that led to an 8-1 run that reduced the gap to seven.

A chance. But a converted steal and a three from Maria Conde – who scored a team-best 15 points – quickly buttressed Spain again.

Damagingly, Fagbenle picked up her 4th foul with 1:00 left in 3rd quarter which ended with Spain 60-49 in front.

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Exhaustion threatened. Buceta asked his players to summon any reserves.

La Roja have become accustomed to closing and their depth provided a monumental assist. And they attacked Fagbenle with vigour, never allowing GB – out-rebounded 38-28 – to come within eight despite the pressure applied.

Leedham, providing 15 points and 12 rebounds and immense leadership, conceded her devastation.

She could have done no more in what may prove her international swansong. “Potentially this is my last game for GB,” she told the BBC.

“We fought in all three games,” Buceta praised. “Obviously we had better chances yesterday (against South Korea) to win than today, but we didn’t.

“We wanted to go to the court to show character and beat the European champions. But they played a good game.”

Just as on their previous visit to Belgrade last summer, Buceta’s troops finished fourth with Fagbenle named to the group’s All Star Five.

This time, regrettably, falling short of third place offered no subsequent reward.

“It is a pity,” Buceta added. “We are disappointed of course. Because we wanted of course to go to the Olympics. But I think these girls share a lot of credit.

“For the courage, for their ambition, for their enthusiasm, for the way they fight to the end. They are a really great inspiration for the young girls in Great Britain.”

The side effects of this loss extend beyond the court.

Seismic perhaps. Far greater than merely missing out on an Olympic Games.

What now for British Basketball, without the financial capital this might have unlocked? One for those who run the sport to ponder so that this is merely a temporary setback rather than one more seismic shock.

“What this team has proven is that it is possible to do big things,” Buceta, who could not confirm his long-term future in the role, underlined.

“Women’s basketball in Great Britain needs support and organisation to move forward, I hope – maybe not in my time – but at some point, Britain could be at an Olympic Games again. And this is something we should have as a goal for future generations.”


His group have done everything they could do to set a tone, to set a standard on which legacies might be built.

Saving the whole game should never have been on their plate.

Others need to now demonstrate an appetite to facilitate many more Olympic pushes like this.

“We should all be so proud of how well the GB Basketball Women have progressed, impressed and remained resilient throughout,” said ex-BBF chief executive Lisa Wainwright on Twitter.

“There are many reasons to continue funding…not least as they are so inspirational.”


Game StatsUpdates

Group final standings: 1. China (3-0) Q, 2. Spain (2-1) Q,  3. South Korea (1-2) Q, 4. Great Britain (0-3)

Notes: GB starters – Vanderwal, Samuelson, Leedham, Green, Fagbenle. All Star Five – Fagbenle, Xu Han, Meng Li (China), Laura Nicholls (Spain), and Hyejin Park (South Korea). Meng Li is the MVP. Fagbenle (25.0ppg ) and Leedham (18.3) were 1-2 in scoring average in the group.

Qualified elsewhere: Nigeria, Serbia – Canada, Belgium – France, Australia, Puerto Rico. (Japan/USA pre-qualified)

Photos: Mansoor Ahmed

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