Great Britain were stymied by China in their opening Olympic qualifier, losing 86-76 in Belgrade.

For two quarters, the prospect of an upset and a huge step towards Tokyo 2020 looked possible.

But despite a game-high 26 points from Temi Fagbenle and a highly-efficient 19 added by Jo Leedham, a 16-4 run from their experienced group rivals in the third turned their hopes on their head.

As expected, given the differential in the rankings and past history. Still frustrating with GB’s defence a step slower than they might have wished.

“There are things to improve but it was a very good sign to compete at this level,” said GB head coach Chema Buceta, who strongly criticised the lack of preparation time afforded to European countries compared to their Asian rivals.

“And I hope that this brings us experience for the next games against Korea and Spain and we are able to qualify, which is our goal.”

The Chinese, with so much experience of tournament play and a month of unbroken preparation together, quickly hit their stride.

Their crisp passing opened up gaps. GB’s defence required adjustments. Their offense too.

Slowly, adaptation came. The towering Fagbenle popped up inside. Then a three from Janice Monakana and a trio of long-range bombs dropped by Chantelle Handy enforced a 9-0 run that provided the underdogs with a first advantage at 21-19 with 1:53 left in the first.

Buceta’s switch to a zone defence altered the balance. Leedham was, as ever, a terrier. She cut through as time was poised to expire to provide her side with a 26-21 lead headed into the second quarter.

It was rapidly extended to eight through Fagbenle. But China, shooting 4/10 from threes in the first half, let fly with Siyu Wang and Xu Han combining in a 10-2 burst that levelled at 36-36.

GB dug deeply. Two timeouts in quick succession from Buceta were designed to stem the tide and instil calm. Just one turnover came in the period. Patience paid off.

And Leedham again finished the quarter in active mode to push the cushion to 46-43 at half-time.

“I don’t think our defence is bad,” declared Buceta at the break. “It’s just China has very good players. They can put the ball inside … We have to improve the little details.”

Fagbenle had a game-high 26 points but China found ways to crowd out.

Those elite foes upped the pressure in transition. Xu Han, converting her first eight shots without a miss, was an enforcer in the middle.

With GB’s defensive guard slipping to uncharacteristic levels, an 11-2 run brought a vital Chinese surge.

“They stepped it up the second half which we knew was going to happen,” Leedham affirmed. “We just couldn’t keep with the and the depth they have. The calibre of players, their size, it was hard to match.”

The Turkey-based wing kept driving, demanding the ball, commanding respect.

Yet Buceta’s side were left with relief when a half-court buzzer beater from Sijing Huang was ruled a fraction too late after a video replay, capping China’s lead at 65-56 entering the third.

Back and forth it went. More required from the British to regain lost ground.

China’s offensive screening in unison provided their guards space to drive and provided uncontested shots. Capitalising, they obtained what would become their biggest advantage at 74-64 with 6:22 left.

On the back foot, GB required an urgent response – but also to be wary of points differential with the final standings in mind.

Down by ten with Ting Shao made 1/2 from the line with 6:25 left, Fagbenle came up with a priceless three to stem the flow and then hit a jumper amid a personal run of ten successive GB points that kicked the door ajar again.

But Meng Li found herself open and drained a three and it was squeezed closed once more.

Although GB’s fight did not relent, nine turnovers in the second half were costly.

Cheridene Green, handed the start but picking up quick early fouls, returned to clasp a pass from Fagbenle to trim the gap to 77-72 with three minutes to go.

However shots would not fall when they needed to and China remained composed from the foul line, with Xu, Ting and Meng each claiming 16 points apiece.

Now GB, out rebounded 32-23, must now look ahead to Saturday and what had always promised to be a pivotal – and probably decisive – contest with South Korea, who were demolished 83-46 by Spain behind Leonor Rodriguez’s 14 points.

Given that GB lost by 8 to Spain at 2019 Euros, this bodes well.

“What we can learn is that the games are super-physical and the refs are letting us play, which is great,” Leedham declared. “We have to rebound a lot better. But we already noticed we belong here and we have to keep believing that and believing that we can get this ticket.”

They will probably need to improve though. But not necessarily by much.

“I know we lost but I think we did a great job for 34 minutes of the game,” Leedham added. “They just wore us down with their size. They out-rebounded us. But we have to learn that we’re here for a reason.”

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

Game StatsUpdates

Notes: GB starters: Vanderwal, Samuelson, Leedham, Green, Fagbenle. Kristine Anigwe earned her first GB cap but did not play (ankle injury). Chantelle Handy was named as captain. A minute’s silence was held before the game for the late NBA Commissioner David Stern and former USA star Kobe Bryant. Yao Ming was in attendance.

Photos: Mansoor Ahmed

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • MySpace
  • Print

You must be logged in to post a comment Login