Years of hard work and preparation have come down to this: three must-win basketball games.
Four teams are still standing after four days of competition at the 2012 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Women currently underway in Ankara, Turkey. Out of the initial field of 12, four teams (Mali, Mozambique, New Zealand and Puerto Rico) were sent packing after losing both their preliminary-round games earlier this week. Four more -- Croatia, Czech Republic, France and host nation Turkey -- won their quarterfinal matches and have solidified their berths for Olympic competition in London.
The Olympic dreams of the four quarterfinal losers -- Argentina, Canada, Japan and Korea -- now depend upon their ability to advance undefeated through Saturday’s semifinals and Sunday’s final to claim the lone remaining Olympic berth. Each team heads into Saturday's sudden-death semifinals with a 1-2 record and their hopes of Olympic glory hanging by the slenderest of threads.
FIBA uses world rankings as seeds, and the luck of the draw has resulted in each team facing an opponent from its own continental zone in Saturday’s semis. Japan will meet Korea in Saturday’s opening match at 6:00 p.m. local (11:00 a.m. EST), while Argentina takes on Canada in the 8:15 nightcap (1:15 p.m. EST). Games can be viewed on fibatv.com by subscription, with highlights available on Youtube.
Korea entered the Qualifying Tournament ranked No. 9 in the world by FIBA, while Japan holds the lowest ranking of the remaining four contenders at No. 15 in the world. Meanwhile, Canada and Argentina rank No. 11 and 12, respectively, with only two-tenths of a point separating the two nations. In certain respects, the pairings are unfortunate: Two intercontinental match-ups such as Japan against Canada and Korea versus Argentina, would have made for a more interesting competition with a greater opportunity to compare the relative skill levels of top teams from the two continental zones.
Semifinal One: Japan v. Korea
Korea is the favorite to emerge from the first of the semifinal match-ups. The two teams have met head-to-head six times since 2005 – most recently, last summer in the Asian Women’s Championships – with Korea always the victor.
Still, don’t rule out Japan. While Korea was once clearly the dominant of the two, routing Japan by 30 to 40-point margins, their more recent contests have been relatively close. Korea edged out just a seven-point win (66-59) in last summer’s 2011 FIBA Asia Championships for Women and when the two teams met at the 2010 Women’s World Championships, Korea prevailed by the narrowest possible margin, 65-64.
Moreover, while the post game is far from Japan's strong suit, 6-1 Japanese center Yuka Mamiya is the Qualifying Tournament’s second-leading scorer at 20.7 points per game, with Korea’s Jung-Ja Sin two steps back at 17.3 points per game and Yeon Ha Beon with 16.3 points per game.
Japan has also shown the better defense of the two over the course of the tournament, allowing opponents just 62.7 points per game, to its own 58.3-point average for a -4.4-point margin. In contrast, Korea gives up 76 points to opponents, while posting 69.7 points of its own, for a margin of -6.3 points per game.
Much will depend on whether Japan’s sharpshooters can find their range on Saturday. While Japan rained down treys in both an exhibition loss to the Los Angeles Sparks and a scrimmage with the U.S. National Team last month, the top two Japanese shooters, Rika Tanaka and Ryoko Yano, are each shooting just 38.5 percent from downtown in this tournament. Not bad, but still no match for Korea’s Yoon-Ah Choi, who is shooting a red-hot 50 percent from long range, and the more prolific Yeon Ha Beon who has been knocking down threes at a 47.1-percent clip, with eight makes on 17 attempts over the past three days of competition.
Expect a relatively close game, in which Japan will do its best to offset Korea's advantages in height and strength with its own speed and long-range shooting.
Semifinal Two: Argentina v. Canada
Despite Canada's marginally higher ranking, Argentina has beaten the Canadians in every head-to-head meeting since 2005 and is favored to win the second of Saturday’s semifinals. But Canada has been steadily closing the gap. After falling to their South American counterparts by 17 points (74-57) in the second of their two meetings in 2006, Canada cut the deficit to 10 points in 2009, and lost by only two points (61-59) in their most recent meeting at the FIBA Americas Championship in 2011.
|Canada will have to find more firepower if it is to keep its Olympic hopes alive over the course of Saturday and Sunday's sudden-death elimination games. Former Vermont star Courtney Pilypaitis, with 11 points, was the only Canadian player to score in double figures in Friday's 59-56 quarterfinal loss to Croatia. (Photo courtesy fiba.com)|
In this week’s Qualifying Tournament, Canada has demonstrated far better defense, giving up just 46 points per game to opponents, while Argentina has allowed 63.7 points per game. But somewhat surprisingly, based on the two teams’ track records, Canada has also shown the better offense of the two, putting up 64 points per game, for a margin of +18 points per game, to Argentina’s 55.3 points per game and negative (-8.4 points per game) scoring margin.
Some of that defensive and scoring-margin difference should be discounted in light of the fact that Argentina faced no team nearly as soft as Mali, which Canada routed, 89-23. Argentina’s lone win of the tournament came in a narrow, 54-41, victory over a New Zealand team that likely could have convincingly pummeled Mali itself.
Nonetheless, Canada owns the higher field-goal shooting percentage of the two teams (37.2 percent, to Argentina’s 31.9 percent), and owns a significant height advantage reflected in its control of the glass (49.3 rebounds per game, to Argentina’s 36.7 rebounds per game).
For its part, Argentina is the better perimeter shooting team, knocking down 31.8 percent of its shots from the arc to Canada’s meager 23.8-percent three-point field-goal shooting. Argentina also does a better job of taking care of the basketball, turning the ball over just 12.7 times per game, while Canada coughs up the rock 16.7 times per game.
Both teams suffered serious disappointments with Friday’s upsets, and the victory will likely go to the team with greater resilience. In that department, Team Canada has an ace in the hole. For the past four years, the team has been working with a sports psychologist, who accompanied the team to Turkey and met with them after the game. The message: Focus on the positive aspects of the Canadian quarterfinal performance – most significantly, their sound defensive play – and forget about the negatives.
“We’ve got another chance, it’s not done yet,” said Canadian head coach McNeill. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about mental toughness and resiliency over the last four years, so I think that will help us bounce back.”
The winners of each semifinal will square off on Sunday, with the final ticket to London at stake. For the losers, there will be a long trip home and four years to contemplate what might have been.
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