GB Women lose 76-67 to Slovakia in their opening European qualifier.

Great Britain’s women began their Eurobasket qualifying campaign in defeat at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, as Tom Maher’s side went down 76-67 to Group D favourites Slovakia.

But there were bright spots amid the gloom, Jo Leedham hitting a team-best 17 points, Azania Stewart stepping up, and GB matching their fancied opponents, like for like, until late in the third quarter when they found another gear and accelerated clear.

The hosts were stunned when Slovakian burst out of the blocks with ten unanswered points to illustrate the standing as group favourites. Maher called time-out to dust off his troops and they responded, Leedham firing the first six points in a 14-0 run that brought GB to life.

Jana Carnoka out the visitors 17-16 in front at the close of the first quarter but, slowly, the 1500 crowd began to witness the fruits of almost two months of preparations as GB found their mark as they pressed full-court to apply the pressure.

Stewart’s physical presence made itself felt at both ends as the US-based centre bullied her way inside. She began another surge that put the hosts in front again, and her foul shot – plus a left-handed lay-up from Rose Anderson – opened up a 36-27 cushion.

Katarina Hrickova scored twice to cap a 6-0 Slovak spurt that trimmed the deficit to 36-34 at half-time. It was as much as Maher would have expected despite Leedham’s individual impression.

The WNBA Draft pick hit two free throws after the break to extend the GB lead but Slovakia then hit unanswered points. Tit for tat, the home side responded in kind. Then the guests reeled off seven without reply, the Brits struggling in transition and giving up too many needless turnovers that were duly punished.

Luisa Michulkova drained a three in the dying seconds of the period to increase her side’s lead to 56-48. Suddenly, the heat was duly on.

Michulkova kept up her personal quest, hitting 11 of Slovakia’s points in succession as the gap grew to 10 with 8 minutes left. GB had to dig deep. Maher barked instructions above the fray but he was forced to call a time-out with 7.26 left and his line-up trailing 63-52.

Jo Leedham of Great Britain draws a foul from Ivana Jalcova

Leedham, quiet for a long spell, sparked a late rally with a 7-0 run that cut the lead to just seven but there was no panic on the visiting bench.

Klaudia Lukacovicova’s game-high 19 points, and some tight defence, kept GB at bay and although Kim Butler missed twice from the line with 35 seconds left, it barely mattered.

“We showed we were competitive, but we had one really bad part where we fell apart,” said a frustrated Maher. “We just didn’t play in that spell, and that was the killer. We got a lot of foul shots, but we didn’t make enough from the floor, if you miss the shot you have to run back and play defence, not worry about the shot.

“We have to learn to play together a bit more, we go for too many home runs, but the thing about us is we have a lot of players who are stars in their team. We have to learn to share the ball a bit more, not be selfish and stop trying to hit home runs all of the time.”

Elsewhere in Group D, Germany, who host GB on Tuesday, pulled off a 60-56 win in Ukraine.

Notes: Lisa Hutchinson was called up into the final 12-woman roster after a knee injury ruled out Sarah McKay, who will have 2 weeks of treatment to determine if she can return. Hutchison stays in squad for Germany on Tuesday.

Maher said that Stewart was “his player of the game”.

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