The Olympic basketball quarter-finals are underway today. Russia and Lithuania are first in action, to be followed later today by Spain, France, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and Team USA.
Great Britain are no longer involved in the tournament, but in their final game Tuesday, already confirmed as a ‘dead rubber’ match thanks to Saturday’s depressing collapse against Australia, Team GB carved themselves a little slice of basketballing history – they secured the nation’s first ever win in Olympic basketball.
Kieron Achara, Rob Archibald, Eric Boateng, Dan Clark, Luol Deng, Joel Freeland, Kyle Johnson, Drew Lawrence, Nate Reinking and Drew Sullivan are the ten men who will forever be able to claim that they were a part of GB’s first ever Olympic win, with key man Pops Mensah-Bonsu having been added to the injury list alongside Mike Lenzly before tip-off.
I want to put what GB did Tuesday into perspective for a minute. This nation has not participated in an Olympic basketball game since 1948, where GB scored just 103 points total in five games and went winless, losing by a humiliating average of 39 points.
If London hadn’t won the 2012 Olympics, we might not have seen this team at all. Thanks to the funding and the initiative of GB Basketball, including the hiring of American coach Chris Finch and the cache and increased links to American opportunities that that brought, thanks to the willingness of Deng and Mensah-Bonsu to throw themselves into the project, the team has come so far in seven years.
After nondescript losses to Russia and Brazil, in which the team was competitive in spurts but never threatened to win, I was somewhat apprehensive when I sat down to watch the team take on Spain, the second best national team in basketball, on Thursday. After an energised and determined GB kept the gap to within 12 for most of the game, I struggled to believe my eyes as a storm of three-pointers brought the British all the way back to within a single point before an exhausted Clark lost track of Jose Calderon, denying GB the chance of one last three to take the game to a most improbable overtime period.
Having then botched a 10-point half-time lead against Australia, losing by 30 and demonstrating physical and emotional exhaustion late in the game, GB lined up for their final game of the tournament against an experienced yet vulnerable Chinese squad also looking for its first win. After some initial disappointment – the Chinese took a 7-0 lead in less than a minute – GB turned in arguably an even better performance than the Spain game.
Deng and Reinking controlled the pace of the game throughout. Freeland and Archibald, once more, were productive inside, judicious on offense and tenacious on defence. But it was Achara, who before the game was scoreless in three appearances and averaging a paltry 3.6 minutes per game, who was the spark. As soon as he came in four minutes into the game – benefitting from the absense of Mensah-Bonsu - Achara was ready to go. He scored 11 of his team-high 16 points in the first quarter, twice connecting from beyond the arc and drawing fouls with his aggressive slashes to the basket. The Scot was a force defensively, too, fearless in his defensive assignments (often guarding Chinese centres and giving up 4-6 inches) and registering three blocks to go with his six rebounds.
The rest of the team played with a synergy and focus rarely seen throughout the rest of the tournament, or indeed over the course of Team GB’s seven-year history. Most of the best work, ironically, was done when GB’s stars were on the bench, the defensive-minded unit of Reinking, Lawrence, Sullivan, Achara and Archibald proving particularly successful. Such was their effectiveness, indeed, that Finch couldn’t get his stars back into the game – Freeland played just 10 minutes, and Deng an unusually low 24, while Achara was in for 21, Sullivan 23, and Archibald 24.
Players like Achara, Archibald, Reinking and Sullivan, who have been involved from the beginning, will rightly take great pride from Tuesday’s triumph. Archibald and Reinking, two of Team GB’s oldest stalwarts, announced their retirements after the game, but most of the squad will have a chance to continue this project, after FIBA announced that Team GB will be allowed to continue as a merger of the English and Scottish basketball federations after 2016 despite Wales’ decision to withdraw from the project. With Finch also choosing to step down as head coach, the team must secure the right man to lead the programme forward, and keep its international stars committed.
Playing separately as England and Scotland, with basketball continuing to dawdle in the background of British sport, I don’t believe this day would ever have happened. Now, with the new Team GB providing increased profile and status among British sport, I have a degree of confidence that we can build a programme which can qualify, if not for Rio, for 2020. That is a giant leap – a vicious one-handed tomahawk, you might say – for basketball in Great Britain.
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