Hoopsters take aim at Tokyo challenge

By SUN XIAOCHEN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-07-15 08:26
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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

Chinese women's team targeting knockout stage, refusing to let pandemic disruption inhibit their ambition

Editor's Note: In the third installment of China Daily's Tokyo Olympics preview series, we take an in-depth look at the Chinese women's basketball squad.

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.

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