A CAPTAIN’S LOG

Now a veteran, Azania Stewart will demand excellence from GB as their EuroBasket bid continues.

In the pre-game huddle, Azania Stewart drilled words of encouragement into the minds of her Great Britain running mates. The captain at the outset of this EuroBasket Women qualifying campaign mapped out a path where others might follow her lead.

With 40 minutes to follow in Podgorica on Saturday that would set a tone, eleven others listened intently and then set about a mission to upset Montenegro.

“I just tried to make sure we were focused and know that every minute counted,” she revealed. “Every point was important. Because every win or loss matters. We don’t want to get blown out.”

Meek submission never looked remotely possible, even when Stewart languished helplessly on the bench as her side slumped 42-28 behind at the close of the second quarter. And even though the eventual points differential was comprehensive, the margins between hosts and visitors were anything but.

Out-rebounded but not out-fought. Pummelled from three-point range in the fourth quarter but not into submission. The experienced and talented Montenegrins were 78-64 winners but there were pockets of enlightenment – especially during an 11-0 run in the second half – for new coach Jose Maria Buceta to build on as he heads towards a meeting with Italy in Manchester on Wednesday night.

“There is something good,” said Stewart, who had 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting. “It’s been quite challenging because we’ve got a new coach and some young ones. But we have to build off those positive moments and remember that Montenegro is a really good team.

“We cut the lead down to three. We had to try a few different things. Ok, sometimes, they lit us up from the three-point line. They shot 42% in the first half. Sometimes you have to take that loss and get it elsewhere. We know we have to clean up the rebounding situation. That would help us get a better flow and get us offensive transition.”

Losing that particular battle 53-32 made it tough to win the war, as did converting a miserly 26% from long range. Stewart was furious at herself for picking up a third foul early in the second period that forced her to the sideline.

“I should have been smarter and I should have been out there helping my team progress,” she acknowledged.

But upon her return, she held composure and nerve, clogging the middle effectively and forcing Montenegro onto the perimeter.

It was, ultimately, as much of a curse as a blessing. Denied the opportunity to pick and roll, Jelena Skerovic headed outside to shoot 5-of-9 and score 17 points. Most brutally of all, Snezana Aleksic buried a trio of three-pointers in the fourth quarter when she was given far too much leeway to let fly.

Yet if GB can run their offense as they did in the second half here, they need not be cower at any opponent in this group. Defensively, even a few seconds of inattention will be punished with the likes of Jamila Thompson and Dominique Allen required, going forward, to scrap for every gain in the post.

And the guards must come ready to fight through screens and into the trajectory of any lurking shooter.

Time remains precious. Dee Hayward will come into contention for a spot against the Italians but there is only room for evolution, not radical surgery.

Not that it is needed. And Stewart has signalled she is ready to lead by example and to ask others to reach above and beyond.

“Coach has put a lot of trust in me,” she said. “We had a good talk and he told me to go score, to be aggressive, to take the open shot. He told me: ‘you need to be more of a presence on the floor.’ That’s what I tried to do.

“Shooting those early two jump shots made the defence worry about me and I got those early drives. Jo had 20. I had 13. But we have to get help from the bench because that’s not enough. Overall though, I’m happy with this but we’ll need more at home.”

Pic: MBF

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