The bonds which Great Britain’s squad have forged will be their greatest asset as they prepare for Saturday’s EuroBasket semi-final against France in Belgrade.

With the guarantee of playing for a medal of some colour this weekend, Chema Buceta’s side will try to extend their surprise fairytale run with their biggest upset to date in arguably the most significant game in British basketball history.

It has come against the odds with the side shaking off their underdog status and the funding crises which have dogged the sport to make their extraordinary mark.

And the chemistry and brutal toughness that they’ve shown in spades have been the driving force behind this improbable trip to the final four, Jo Leedham proclaims.

“People have come in and really understood the culture,” she said. “If they haven’t, we’ve tried to explain it to them. Because if you can’t play on this team if you can’t understand the culture. That’s how we’ve been able to grow.

“Once everyone understands we’re not the super-skilful talented team but we’re the nitty-gritty defensive team, that’s what’s allowed us to grow. We know what our strengths are and we play to it.

“People are still shocked by it. I still think people think it’s a fluke. But I think, I hope, that slowly people are starting to respect us.”

Buceta has been the mind master of this transformation. The jovial Spaniard adores his group and it is reciprocated in full. The Professor of Psychology has worked with Real Madrid’s footballers in times of achievement but this might be his finest work yet.

HIs strategy has been to empower. To allow them to play freely. To take risks. And to contribute with responsibility.

Temi Fagbenle, Karlie Samuelson and Leedham may be the chief pieces of the puzzle offensively but others form the awkward squad.

More than the sum of their parts. All for one, and back again.

“The most important thing is our team orientation,” he declares. “Players sometimes score but they play great defence. They support each other. Even the players who play less, they do something on the court for the team. This is the most important thing that we need during qualification and here.

“And endurance. Mental strength. We qualified through a tough qualification. We beat Israel in overtime. We beat Israel by two in Israel. We beat Portugal in Portugal. We beat Greece at home. We’ve become stronger with all this experience that we’ve had.

“And here wasn’t easy. Latvia we were leading by one at half-time. Ukraine was difficult. This endurance and mental strength is a very important part of this team.”


Beating the French – runners-up in the last three editions – is a massive ask. It would still be a huge shock if the side progresses to face either Serbia or Spain in the final rather than playing off for bronze.

Bu Fagbenle has emerged as the favourite for the tournament’s MVP award with performances that show she’s truly world-class, Buceta insisted.

“I’m very surprised that she is in the WNBA with Minnesota and she doesn’t play,” said the Spaniard. “I don’t understand why. She is a great player. Same as Jo. She is a player for the team. She does a lot of work. She is scoring but she is playing unbelievable defence. She is helping the team, all the time.”

No doubt Fagbenle will be a target for the French defensive core with her match-up with veteran pivot Sandrine Gruda arguably the most appetising duel.

Having both resided in Riga in the the first round, there will be a familiarity between the sides. Late in arriving amongst the rest of the world, admits Leedham who will face off against her former coach at Bourges, Valerie Garnier, who steered Les Bleues to their dramatic last-eight overtime win over Belgium.

“No-one really knows anything about British basketball, other than a couple of players who play Euroleague.

“But I think the biggest change will maybe come after this tournament when people really talk about us. Because it’s been a couple of years and after the qualifying windows, no-one really talks about it. So we’ll see after EuroBasket.”

The BBC have confirmed a late deal to show the semi – and Sunday’s medal game. A great shame that GB’s run here has remained largely out of sight in the UK, over-shadowed by England and Scotland’s participation in football’s Women’s World Cup.

The English reached the penultimate round of their competition too. They fell short and will be playing for third at the same time as Buceta’s side aim to go one phase further. Some inspiration has been gained though, Leedham adds.

“The Lionesses are doing a fantastic job. Everyone should be so proud of them. I think. There’s a lot more left for them which is exciting.

“But the same for us. I think we have a lot left in it. I hope people can respect us more. But we’re not worried about that. We’re just doing our thing. We’re just focused in the moment.”

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Photo: Mansoor Ahmed

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