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Hoopsters take aim at Tokyo challenge

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, July 15, 2021
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Team China captain Shao Ting will lead a young side into battle at the Tokyo Olympics. The Chinese women will be up against Australia, Belgium and Puerto Rico in Group C, and will be aiming to improve upon a 10th-place finish at the Rio Games. XINHUA

Despite seeing its preparations severely disrupted by the pandemic, China's youthful women's basketball team heads to the Tokyo Olympics in optimistic and determined mood.

With their male counterparts failing to qualify for the Games, the women's players could be forgiven for feeling extra pressure on their young shoulders as the country's sole representative in the high-profile five-a-side game.

However, head coach Xu Limin is urging his charges to enjoy the experience despite the sizable challenges that await.

"Even with the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic affecting our plans, we will go for the best possible results at the Olympic Games in Tokyo," Xu said during a recent open training session in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

"The attention and expectation on us have never been higher. We have to stand tall for our country in the sport."

Led by veteran forward Shao Ting and young centers Han Xu and Li Yueru, China won all three of its Olympic qualifying games in Belgrade in February 2020 to seal its ninth trip to the Games since the country's Olympic debut in 1984.

The success of that campaign lifted the whole nation as it battled the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, while also buoying hoops fans that had been disappointed by the men's struggles on the court.

After failing to secure a direct berth to Tokyo at the home FIBA World Cup in 2019, the Chinese men's team lost three qualifiers in a row earlier this month in Canada to miss the Olympic tournament for the first time since 1984.

Xu's squad is expected to lean on the size and power of front-court combo Han and Li in crucial Group C games against Puerto Rico and Belgium, on July 27 and Aug 2 respectively. Victories in those games would secure a quarterfinal spot in the 12-team tournament, where the top two sides from each of the three groups and the two best third-placed finishers will advance. China will also face overwhelming group favorite Australia on July 30.

"Australia, as the 2018 World Cup runner-up, is the undisputed group leader, so our focus will be on at least beating Puerto Rico in our tournament opener and then to see how we can play better from there," Xu said.

Three-time Olympic silver medalist Australia appears a certainty to top the group, especially after being bolstered by the return of WNBA All Star center Elizabeth Cambage and experienced guard Rebecca Allen.

China edged Australia in a round-robin game at the 2019 FIBA Women's Asia Cup, but the Aussies were without the services of Cambage on that occasion.

China's progress to the knockout stage looks likely to hinge on the Belgium game. The European side will be spearheaded by power forward Emma Meesseman, who led the Washington Mystics to the 2019 WNBA championship.

China and Belgium shared the spoils at an invitational tournament in 2018, with Xu rating the Belgians as his team's main rival in the fight for second spot in the group.

Following the team's disappointing 10th-place finish at the 2016 Games, Xu took over the national program tasked with rebuilding the team around a young core of centers, Li Meng and Li Yuan.

Renowned as a hard taskmaster, Xu's tough love in training soon paid off when the Chinese squad reclaimed the Asian Games gold medal in 2018, having lost it to host South Korea at the 2014 edition.

Xu's influence has seen Han and Li Yueru, both measuring over 2 meters tall, develop a softer shooting touch and a more dynamic defensive range-qualities which soon attracted the attention of the WNBA.

Selected by the New York Liberty at 14th overall in the 2018 WNBA Draft, Han, 21, featured in 18 games off the bench during the 2019 season, averaging 3 points and 0.8 rebounds in 7.9 minutes of action. She opted out from the single-site WNBA season last year to join China's Olympic program.

Li Yueru, 22, was picked 35th by the Atlanta Dream in the same year but chose to stay in the domestic league.

With no international warm-ups to play due to the pandemic, Xu turned to the men's domestic scene, organizing five tuneup games against youth teams from the CBA league and Beijing Sport University.

"We've been playing against the boys for so long that I've almost forgotten what the other girls look like," said point guard Yang Liwei, who led Inner Mongolia to the 2020-21 WCBA championship.

"The best thing playing the boys is that we can handle tougher physical confrontations and have our confidence boosted by beating them in some games.

"Credit also goes to our men's training partners who tried to emulate the tactics and styles of our group opponents in Tokyo, helping us get used to the way they will play offensively and defensively."

3x3 dreams

China will also send its men's and women's 3x3 basketball rosters to the Tokyo Games.

Veteran Zheng Yi has been dropped from the men's squad despite solid performances in the qualifying tournament.

The men's team consists of Hu Jinqiu, Li Haonan, Yan Peng and Gao Shiyan, with Chen Peidong and Liu Hengyi as substitutes.

"In the past few years, Zheng made great contributions to China's 3x3 basketball. He is also ranked third among the top 10 national players. However, considering many aspects, the coaching team ultimately chose Li Haonan and Yan Peng," said head coach Liu Zhen. "Hu Jinqiu is the core of the team, boasting great physical condition and skills."

Liu added that the six European teams will be China's main rivals in Tokyo.

The Chinese women's team consists of Zhang Zhiting, Wan Jiyuan, Yang Shuyu and Wang Lili. Wang Haimei and Li Yingyun have been named as substitutes.

Women's team head coach Xu Jiamin said that selection was not based on age, experience or where the players come from, with the only criteria being their competitiveness on the international stage.

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