Whether it will be the United States or another country, one thing is certain: The world will crown a new womens basketball champion on Sunday. Before the president of their country and a house packed to the rafters with festive, horn-blowing, drum-banging countrymen, the Czech Republic took down the reigning champion, 79-68, today in KV Arena, Karlovy, in a game that proclaims a new era in international womens basketball.
Czech coach Lubor Blazek said afterward that despite having the utmost respect for Australia and its players, Lauren Jackson (Seattle Storm) in particular, he believed that the Czechs could beat the powerhouse and he mapped out a plan to do it. More importantly, his players bought in to the plan; they too believed they could pull off the upset, and pulled off Blazeks strategy just as he had written it.
My team prepared very well for this game today, Blazek said. I knew the players believed in the system we planned for tonight. In this game we played exactly how we wanted, exactly the defense we need.
According to Blazek, he knew his team could not out-shoot the Aussies (though today they did, by a 38-percent to 29-percent margin); instead, the key to the game would be defense. Blazek said he had charted out every shot taken and every one made by the Opals in this tournament and had come to the conclusion that the key to success lay in containing the tough and tall Australian post. No surprise there. But how to do it?
Czech defenders harried the Australian post players, and especially Jackson, every time the ball came anywhere near her. Plan A was to keep the ball out of her hands in the first instance. Failing that, the Czechs aimed to put defensive pressure on her even before she picked up her dribble and got set for a shot.
One of Jacksons special talents is her ability to stop on a dime and get her shot off so quickly the defense has no opportunity to set up, Blazek told Full Court through an interpreter. The plan was to use trapping, double and triple teams, and constant pressure to prevent her for doing so, and let Australias outside shooters beat them if they could.
They couldnt. But did the strategy work? To a point.
As Australian Coach Carrie Graf pointed out, the Czechs did not accomplish their goal of keeping the ball out of Jacksons hands. She took 15 shots from the field, including six three-pointers, many of them wide open, so Jackson was getting her touches.
But the WNBA regular-season and Finals MVP did not net her first field goal until the waning minutes of the third quarter. (It didnt help that she sat out much of the second period with two fouls.) Though she finished with 13 points, six of those were the charity stripe, where Jackson was a near-perfect six-of-seven.
From the field, however, Jackson shot a paltry three-for-15 (20 percent) and from beyond the arc an even worse one-of-six (17 percent). Whether it was the unexpected physicality of the Czech defense, fatigue from her year-long Australian and WNBA playing season, or that the basketball gods simply werent shining Down Under today (or some combination of the three as Carrie Graf suggested), the loss of Jacksons firepower was a huge blow to the Opals.
Fellow WNBA star and Australia National Team lynchpin Penny Taylor (Phoenix Mercury) wasnt faring much better. Taylor landed just two of her 15 field-goal attempts (13 percent), and none of her three shots from beyond the arc, to finish with just six points (but seven boards) for the evening.
The one bright light for Australia was Liz Cambage, who played more than 35 minutes, finishing with 22 points on six-of-11 shooting from the field (55 percent) and 10-of-13 (77 percent) from the foul line, making it a double-double with a game-high 10 rebounds.
Look, she just gets better every game, said Graf of her budding star, acknowledging that Cambage plans to enter the WNBA draft next season and is destined to become an international star.
When we are not shooting well, you have to make sure you defend and we didn't do that tonight, Graf noted. And, as Jackson graciously put it after the game, congratulating the Czechs on their win, Czech were shooting the lights out. Tonight, she added, the defense just wasnt there. We just couldnt do anything to stop them.
|Photo Caption: "The defense just wasn't there," said Lauren Jackson, shown here trying to defend Seattle Storm teammate, and Czech opponent, Jana Vesela's shot. Vesela finished with 12 points, six rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block in the Czech upset of the defending champions. Meanwhile, the Czech defense held Jackson to just seven points from the field, and 13 points in all, on miserable (20 percent) field-goal shooting. Jackson did find other ways to contribute, with eight boards, an assist and two blocks.|
|Photo Credit: Tara Polen|
Eva Viteckova led the way with 27 points on 10-of-18 (56 percent) shooting from the field, including five-of-10 (50 percent) from three-point range. She also pulled down four rebounds. Team captain Hana Horakova was hot on her teammates heels with 21 points on seven-of-13 (54 percent) shooting from the field, including four-of-seven (57 percent) from beyond the arc. Horakova led the Czechs in rebounding with eight boards, dished out three assists, and snatched three steals.
Jana Vesela (Seattle Storm) rounded out the Czechs in double-figures with 12 points on 60 percent field-goal shooting, and six rebounds, also posting two assists, a steal and a block.
The Czechs won despite losing in every power category. The Aussies controlled the boards, 49-42, the offensive glass, 18-15. They had 13 second-chance points to the Czechs six. (Both teams did a good job of containing their turnovers, with Australia coughing the ball up 10 times, and the Czech Republic just six.
And despite the Czechs game plan, Australia still dominated the paint, 32-18.
But the power statistics cant measure heart, and that was very much on display tonight.
Several times in the early quarters, Australia held a small lead before an 11-2 run that bridged the late second and the early minutes of the third quarters gave the Czechs a 42-32 lead. Several times in the second half, Australia threatened closing the gap to a single possession, or even a single point, but the Czechs refused to give up their hard-won edge.
One kept wondering how long the Czechs could continue on pure adrenaline, as the crowd fed their momentum.
Jackson finally made her first appearance on the scoreboard, knocking down one of a pair of free throws with a little more than three minutes left in the third quarter. Seconds later, she nailed her first field goal of the game. Had she finally found her stroke? Would this be the start of the turnaround?
No, it would not. Jackson would net only two more field goals in the entire game. But as the third quarter drew to a close, Australia edged to within point, 51-52. Three Czech players were in serious foul trouble: Petra Kulichova, who had only six points but was a defensive force in the paint as well as on the boards (seven rebounds) picked up her fourth foul with 17 seconds left in the third quarter. (Remember, in FIBA, five fouls are disqualifying.) Ivana Vecerova, another player whose contributions did not show up in the box score, also had four. Ilona Burgrova and Horakova had three apiece.
Would this be the turning point, one asked ones self, when Australia would make its last-quarter comeback?
No, it would not. Horokova knocked down back-to-back treys in the first two minutes of the fourth to stretch the Czech lead to 58-51, and Viteckova made it a 10-point edge with another three-pointer a minute later.
Taylor would carve it to eight with a pair of penalty shots as Burgrova picked up her fourth foul, and Belinda Snell would make it six less than a minute later, again with a pair from the charity stripe. But Australia would come no closer.
Even when Vecerova hit the deck hard and headed to the sidelines clutching her right shoulder, the Czechs continued to frustrate the Australians attempts at a rally. (Vecerova reentered the game for the final minutes after Burgrova picked up her fourth personal. Blazek said he did not know the extent of her injury, such had been the commotion in the locker room after the game. But, he added, I think, even if you are injured, you will not feel very bad with a game like this one.)
It wasnt a lack of effort, said Graf of her players. We left it all out there. We just couldnt get the go-ahead [shot].
When the final buzzer sounded and the crowd quite literally went wild, the score stood at 79 Czech Republic, 68 Australia. (FIBA did not announce the attendance figures for this session, but KV Arena appeared to be filled at or close to its capacity of 6,000, with none of the sections curtained off as had been the case in earlier rounds in Ostrava.)
|Photo Caption: When the buzzer sounded, sealing their win, the Czech players rolled on the floor in gleeful celebration, while standing nearby, Australian veteran Kristi Harrower burst into tears at the loss.|
|Photo Credit: Tara Polen|
As the Czechs rolled on the floor in celebration, Kristi Harrower stood on the floor, reduced to tears. Jackson, ever the leader, quickly drew put her hand on Harrowers shoulder, pulling the team around her, determined that the world should not see Australians crying in their beer.
You have to remember, she said afterward, how much work these girls put into this. And for some, they do not know whether this will be their last time to play for Australia.
Graf said she never believed the gap between the Big Three (USA, Australia and Russia) was as big as many people had thought of it. She noted the strength not just of the Czechs, but also of France, Spain and Belarus. China, she added, finished fourth in the Olympics, even though they did not have a very good tournament here. And there are great players in the developing world, who over time will have a major impact on their national teams.
But the rest of the world is on notice that one takes an adversary lightly at ones own risk. U.S. coach Geno Auriemma has spent the last week taking to task journalists who began their questions with, When you and Australia meet again in the gold-medal game.
There are no guarantees, he pointed out, that either the United States or Australia would make it to the gold-medal game, though that was obviously the goal for both.
That might have seemed false modesty at the time. Team USA has ruled the medal stand since the World Championships began. For Australia, this will be the first time since 1994 that the Opals havent made it to the semifinals, usually bringing home a medal of some color.
Now, Russia and Australia will both have to gather themselves emotionally as they head to the classification rounds with nothing more to fight for than the worlds fifth-place ranking.
For his part, Blazek was speechless in the immediate aftermath of the victory. Then, as his players hurried back to the locker room to meet with the Czech president, he waxed philosophical. Basketball, he said, again speaking to Full Court through an interpreter, is not like a lift [elevator], where you simply press the button and go straightaway to the top. You must do the work, one floor at a time, and this is what we did.
The Czechs move on to face Belarus in Saturdays semifinals; the United States will face Spain, who rounded out the day of upsets by defeating European champion France, 74-71, in overtime.