Great Britain’s Olympic hopes hang on Sunday’s clash with Spain after losing 82-79 to South Korea.

A tantalising opportunity missed after they improbably rallied from an impossible deficit in the closing five minutes in their second Olympic qualification game in Belgrade behind 28 points from Temi Fagbenle and a 21 points and ten assists contribution from Jo Leedham.

Victory, tantalisingly, would have sent Chema Buceta’s side automatically to Tokyo 2020.

Instead, they must defeat the European champions – who were earlier upset 64-62 by Japan-bound China.

“We have to get ready and we have to turn it around fast,” Chantelle Handy, the GB captain, declared.

“We have to be fearless at this point because we still have a chance to go. We can play Spain. We’ve played them twice, close, in the last year…. We cannot dwell on this game.”

With the gateway wide open to a glorious summer, the early portents for GB looked promising. Leedham, a bundle of emotion following Thursday’s loss to the Chinese, emerging with intent with the first six points of the contest.

The Koreans, no slouches, knew defeat would mean elimination. They responded speedily with an 8-0 charge with their shooters happily confounding GB who, to some surprise, stuck with their zone defence.

A further 9-2 burst extended their advantage late in the opening period and then Leeseul Kang converted consecutive three-pointers to increase the cushion to 31-21 early in the second.

“We left too many shots wide open,” Rachael Vanderwal acknowledged.

Buceta enforced a timeout. The response was not as desired. GB’s guards missed their first seven shots. Fagbenle, picking up a second foul, was confined to the bench.

The Koreans geared up again. Eleven unanswered points saw them swirl 42-26 front with 2:34 remaining. Their rivals, temporarily at least, on the ropes.

Help, finally, came. Kristie Anigwe, making her debut after sitting out the tournament opener with an ankle injury, converted a lay-up for her first points in a British jersey.

Then Karlie Samuelson, belatedly, ignited. Three three-pointers after three misses. It reduced the gulf to 45-37 at half-time.

“To win the game, we have to improve our defence of the three-point shot,” said Buceta. 8/15 from distance in the opening 20 minutes, he knew, was instrumental in Korea’s supremacy.

Kristie Anigwe had four rebounds on her debut

A mantra ignored upon the restart with threes from Danbi Kim and Hyejin Park in turn delivered an opening 8-2 salvo that caught Buceta’s side cold.

Breathing space for the Koreans. And even though Fagbenle picked up a third foul mid-period, the WNBA centre was no longer expendable.

Outside shooting still pummelled GB. Kang extended her attempts from outside the arc to a perfect 6/6. The pressure not tight enough.

Down 70-54 headed into the fourth, a retrieval act was not quickly forthcoming.

Every step forward was met by a seemingly inevitable Korean three with Kim pivotal.

“We didn’t find a way to defend it,” Buceta acknowledged. “We tried different options. Press more, press less. Everything”

Confidently, South Korea sat 78-61 clear with 6:29 remaining.

Points differential, swiftly, became a secondary GB priority.

Out of nowhere, though, came a reply few could have expected. Threes from Leedham and Samuelson began an extraordinary acceleration that re-awoke the contest in dramatic fashion.

15 unanswered points over a torrid five-minute spell. Fagbenle a totem. 43 seconds left and the gap had been almost been erased at 80-79.

A door teasingly open.

However with a chance to poach an astonishing lead, a turnover was costly and it forced Fagbenle to foul.

Kang – who scored 26 points, and her side a punishing 29/56 from the field – converted 2/2 from the line to leave Buceta with a time out with 14 seconds left and his team with one more urgent requirement.

A three.

But Vanderwal, off a screen, saw her attempt to force overtime hit the rim.

The comeback thwarted. Brave as it had been, GB – agonisingly – came up short.

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“We’re disappointed with the loss,” Handy affirmed.

“The girls did a great job to come back in the fourth and get as close as we did. Maybe, we started maybe to chip away too late. But Korea had a great game, nearly 60% from the three point line, a great shooting game.

“But we still have a chance. We have to get over this game and move onto the next.”

If the Koreans lose to the Chinese in Sunday’s first game, Spain could suffer defeat by less than 71 and still head to the Olympics. Should Korea prevail, GB v Spain will be a straight winner-take-all.

The sky-high stakes, Handy maintained, will not be a factor. It wasn’t here, the veteran vowed.

“Yes, you’re nervous coming into these games but it’s good to have nerves. We knew how important this game was but there is another chance so it’s not over,

“I don’t think there was fear. They just came out and shot the lights out and we didn’t adjust until the end. Unfortunately it was a bit too late by then

“But we have tomorrow and we have to get ready and we have to turn it around fast.”

Game StatsUpdates


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

Notes: GB starters Vanderwal, Samuelson, Leedham, Green, Fagbenle.

Photos: Mansoor Ahmed

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