Turkey and Croatia made history Friday as each nation earned its first-ever Olympic berth in women’s basketball at the 2012 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Women in Ankara, Turkey. France and the Czech Republic, both heavy favorites to make the Olympic field coming into the tournament, did not disappoint as they, too, secured their Olympic berths by winning their quarterfinal matches Friday.
That leaves just one spot still up for grabs. Four nations – Argentina, Canada, Japan and Korea – each of which lost its quarterfinal, remain in the mix and will duke it out in a series of sudden death elimination games over the next two days in an effort to keep their Olympic hopes alive.
Seven nations – 2010 World Champion Team USA, host nation Great Britain, and the winners of the five zone tournaments held in 2011, Angola (Africa), Brazil (Americas), China (Asia), Russia (Eurobasket Women), and Australia (Oceania) – have previously qualified for the London Olympics.
Four Teams Eliminated in Preliminaries
One or more runners-up from each of the five zone tournaments won the right to vie for one of the five spots not already spoken for at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament this week. The 12 competitors were divided into four groups of three teams, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the quarterfinals.
Puerto Rico, which replaced Cuba when it withdrew; Mali, which stood in for Senegal, another no-show; Mozambique, and New Zealand, each lost both of its preliminary-round contests and were eliminated after the first three days of competition in Ankara.
High-Ranking Czech Republic Noses Past Japan
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Czech Republic, which finished second to the United States at the 2010 Women’s World Basketball Championships and is currently ranked fourth in the world by FIBA (the International Federation of Basketball, the governing body for both the Olympics and the World Championships), breezed through its preliminaries undefeated, easily defeating Argentina (68-54) and crushing New Zealand (70-51).
The Czechs entered Friday’s quarterfinal match against Japan heavily favored to win. The Japanese National Team has good speed and can shoot the lights out from the perimeter but lacks height and much of a post game – both long suits for the Czechs.
For the first 10 minutes, it looked like the Czechs were off to another rout. But after putting up 13 unanswered points to start the game and opening up a 17-4 first-quarter lead, the Czechs cooled a bit while the Japanese dug in, outscoring their taller opponents 14-12 in the second period.
That still left the Czechs holding a double-digit (29-18) lead heading into the break, and they expanded that advantage to 43-31 by the end of three. But in the final quarter, the Japanese mounted an intense pressure defense, which forced 19 Czech turnovers for the game as a whole, while the Japanese sharpshooters found their range.
Japan closed to within three points (46-43) on back-to-back three-pointers, but to the Czechs’ great relief were unable to pull any closer.
The difference for the Czech Republic was superior rebounding (42-23 Czech advantage) and a double-double (14 points, 15 rebounds) from from 6-6 center Petra Kulichovå, who took home the trophy as Czech Player of the Tournament. The 53-47 win gives the Czech's their third consecutive Olympic appearance.
Les Bleus Head to London with Easy Win over Korea
Like the Czech Republic, the French, who are ranked No. 8 in the world by FIBA and finished third at the 2011 FIBA Eurobasket Women Tournament with a 63-56 victory over the higher ranked Czechs, went undefeated in the preliminary rounds.
In their opening game, Les Bleus ran out to a 21-11 first-quarter lead over Canada, which they rode to a 56-47 win despite a valiant Canadian effort to chip away at the deficit over the three remaining periods. The following day, the French barely broke a sweat, with their starters getting plenty of rest as they romped to an 87-33 rout of Mali.
Thus, France, too, was the heavy favorite heading into its quarterfinal match-up with Korea, a team that has not beaten France in women’s basketball since 1979. Friday’s quarterfinal would not break the French winning streak.
Korea started out strong, taking a slight, 20-19, lead by the end of the first quarter. But from there, the vaunted French defense battened down, while 6-4 center Sandrine Gruda took over on the offensive end. The former Connecticut Sun star posted 19 points, five rebounds and two assists to lead Les Bleus to an 80-63 victory.
In a solid team effort in which all but one French player scored, 6-3 center Isabelle Yacoubou notched a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds, and 6-2 post Endéné Miyem added another 10 points.
Korea’s Yeon Ha Beon logged 15 points, including four-of-eight from beyond the arc, and 6-1 center Jung-Ja Sin came off the bench to lead the way with 17 points for the losing side.
Looking ahead to their first Olympic appearance since Sydney 2000, both French coach Pierre Vincent and play maker Edwige Lawson-Wade, formerly of the San Antonio Silver Stars, conceeded that the United States is in a class of its own, but were optimistic about their chances against the rest of the Olympic field.
“To win USA, it’s impossible,” said Vincent, “quite impossible. But for the rest, I think we can compete.”
“Definitely. I think USA is above everybody else right now,” added Lawson-Wade. “Every position, they have the best player in the world. And the other teams, yes, we can compete. But this kind of competition depends on so many things – how you feel that day, how you [are] making your basket that day, who [you’re] crossing in quarterfinals, how is your group. So it’s hard to say what kind of level or which result we [are] gonna have. So I think we have to set realistic goal, but then after, anything is possible for anybody.”
Turkish Hosts Delight Local Fans with Three-Game Sweep
A newcomer not only to the Olympic field, but also to the elite of the women’s basketball scene, Turkey made a statement last year at Eurobasket Women, first making its way into the quarterfinals, then putting an end to Montenegro’s Cinderella run through the tournament to reach the semis.
Observers were astonished when Turkey next knocked off a veteran French squad, one of Europe’s perennial leaders, 68-62, in overtime to advance to the championship game, before falling to Russia, 59-42, in the final.
This week, the Turks proved last year’s run through Eurobasket was no fluke, as the Qualifying Tournament hosts advanced undefeated with apparent ease through their preliminary-round group. They got out to a strong start, easily vanquishing Puerto Rico, 65-53, on opening day, then handed Japan a decisive, 65-49, thumping the following day to advance to Friday’s quarterfinals.
Ranked No. 21 in the world by FIBA, Turkey, at least on paper, appeared to be overmatched by its quarterfinal adversary, No. 12-ranked Argentina, which finished second to Brazil in last summer’s FIBA Americas Championship for Women.
Evidently, the Turks were not impressed. Totally dominating the opening half, Turkey held the Argentines to single-digit scoring in each of the first two quarters, carrying a 35-15 lead into the halftime locker room behind 11 straight points from 6-4 center Nevriye Yilmaz to open the game and a 19-0 run.
Argentina refused to be broken. Spurred by a 17-point effort by 19-year old point guard Maria Gretta, who came off the bench, netting four-of-10 from downtown to lead her team back into contention, Argentina battled back in the third period to slice five points off the Turkish lead and closed to within striking distance, 57-50, with seven minutes to go in the game.
But fueled by the support of some 7,500 Turkish fans who came out to cheer on their national team, Turkey regrouped, reclaiming its double-digit advantage down the stretch to seal a 72-58 victory and book passage to the London Olympics.
Yilmaz finished with a team-high 17 points, plus four rebounds, and shooting guard Tugba Palazoglu dropped in 13 more for the Turkish side. Newly minted Turk, 6-5 center Quanitra Hollingsworth, the former Virginia Commonwealth star, born in Portsmouth, Virginia, who spent three years playing for the Minnesota Lynx and the New York Liberty in the WNBA, came off the bench to add 12 points more, while leading the way on the glass with eight rebounds.
|American Quanitra Hollingsworth, a 6-5 center and former Virginia Commonwealth standout, who spent the past three years in the WNBA, acquired Turkish citizenship to join the Turkish National Team in its successful quest for its first-ever Olympic berth. (Photo courtesy fiba.com)|
Top honors as Turkish Player of the Tournament went to veteran Turkish play maker Birsel Vardarli, who dished out an impressive 11 assists (to just three turnovers) with eight points and six rebounds to help carry her team to the quarterfinal victory.
“It feels great. We really did something that means a lot for the country,” said Hollingsworth of Turkey’s accomplishment in earning its first trip to the Olympics. “This is my first Turkish team, so it’s special for me. But I think they’ve accomplished so many things that they’ve been looking to do for the past 10 years or so. This is really a big year for them.
“I haven’t been here that long,” Hollingsworth continued, “but they have a wonderful group of fans. I think the whole country is behind them. So we’re really looking to do great things in London.”
Croatia Edges Canada to Earn First Trip to Olympics
|Croatian captain Sandra Mandir helped lead her team to its first-ever Olympic appearance in women's basketball with a 59-56 quarterfinal victory over Canada Friday. (Photo courtesy fiba.com)|
Perhaps the surprise of the tournament has been Croatia. Ranked a lowly No. 31 in the world (and that is a 23-level improvement over its previous year’s ranking), Croatia emerged out of nowhere last year to reach the quarterfinals of 2011 Eurobasket Women, before falling to the Czech Republic, 79-63. Dropping into the classification bracket, the Croats battled their way past Lithuania and Montenegro to finish in fifth place, earning the right to compete for an Olympic berth in this week’s Qualifying Tournament.
This week, Croatia proved it has arrived as a European basketball power to be reckoned with. After dropping Mozambique, 84-62, in its opening game, Croatia went on to upset No. 9-ranked Korea, 83-75, in a hotly contested game, to advance undefeated into the quarterfinals.
There, Croatia once again faced a higher-ranked team in No. 11 Canada. Nonetheless, in what was unquestionably the most exciting quarterfinal of the day, Croatia clawed its way to a 59-56 victory and the first Olympic women’s basketball appearance in the brief history of the nation.
The 17-16 score at the end of the first 10 minutes might have been an omen of the excruciatingly close contest that would follow. Canada went cold as the Croatian defense dug in during the second period, and Croatia held a 33-26 edge by the intermission.
But the Canadians emerged from the locker room with stiffened resolve. In the third period, it was Canada's defense that seized the upper hand, holding Croatia to just eight points in the quarter, while the Canadian shooters went to work erasing the deficit. Canada took off on a 16-5 run and nearly equaled their entire first-half production in that 10-minute span. By the end of three, Canada held a five-point lead, 46-41.
But the Canadians squandered the opportunity, picking the wrong time to go cold.
Holding Canada scoreless for the first 5:25 of the final period and to just 10 points the rest of the way, Croatia reclaimed the lead down the stretch, putting up 18 points in the final quarter to eke out the 59-56 win.
Canadian coach Allison McNiell blamed her team’s poor shooting for wasting a solid defensive effort, observing:
“At the end of the day, we just missed shots that you probably shouldn’t at this level,” McNiell stated. “If you’re holding a team to 59 points you’re playing pretty good defense, but you’ve got to put the ball in the hoop a bit more.”
No question, McNiell was right on the mark, as her team shot just 31.9 percent from the field (to Croatia’s 42.3-percent field-goal percentage), and 13.3 percent (two-of-15) from the arc, for the game. The only Canadian player to register double figures was former Vermont phenom Courtney Pilypaitis, who logged 11 points, five rebounds and two steals.
In particular, Canada has missed the firepower ordinarily provided by veteran guard Kimberly Smith. The Utah product and former Sacramento Monarch has been largely missing-in-action during this tournament, putting up 11 points and grabbing eight boards in Canada's opening game against the hapless squad from Mali, but notching just six points and a single rebound in Canada’s loss to France. In Friday’s quarterfinal, which was Canada’s best chance to secure an Olympic berth, Smith recorded just four points, though she did pull down seven rebounds and pass out two assists.
McNiell expressed confidence that her team leader would rebound from her recent slump:
“People are really keying on her,” said McNeill. “There’s a lot of clutch-and-grabbing, but we have to get her shots.
“I know she will come back and shoot the ball better, but we do have to get her going.”
Still, despite their relatively cold hands, the Canadians made up for their poor shooting with superior rebounding, taking a 38-30 advantage on the glass, and battling the Croats evenly in most other statistical categories. At the end of the day, this game was decided at the free-throw line, where Croatia garnered 13 points in 18 visits, including a decisive five-of-six from the penalty stripe – more than the margin of victory -- in the game’s final 22 seconds. In contrast, though the Croats committed only one fewer personal fouls than Team Canada (17-18), the Canadians failed to get themselves to the line, netting only eight points in their nine trips to the charity stripe.
Six-one power forward Jelena Ivezic led the way for the victors with 12 points off the bench. In a solid team effort, point guard Andja Jelavic passed out a game-high five assists, 6-9 center Luca Ivankovic matched Ivezic with five boards apiece, and team captain Sandra Mandir, a shooting guard, contributed a well-rounded performance with eight points, four rebounds and two assists.
But top honors went to 6-6 starting center Marija Vrsaljko took top honors as Croatian Player of the Tournament, not only for the 10 points, four boards and three blocks in the quarterfinal, but for her efforts throughout Croatia’s run through the tournament, which included her 26 points, seven rebounds and two blocks against Korea.
Quarterfinal Losers to Battle It Out for Final Spot
The Olympic dreams of Argentina, Canada, Japan and Korea,the four quarterfinal losers, now depend upon their ability to advance undefeated through Saturday’s semifinals and Sunday’s final to claim the sole remaining Olympic berth.