An eye-catching display from Rachael Vanderwal and some stellar defensive work propelled Great Britain to a magnificent 56-49 win against Belgium in a perfect start to their EuroBasket Women 2nd Qualification Round campaign.
GB pull clear to win EuroBasket Women opener against Belgium
Vanderwal stole the show with a tremendous 17-point performance, as well as sinking a killer three-pointer with just over ninety seconds remaining to seal the deal for the jubilant hosts at the University of Worcester Arena.
A final quarter shutdown of the Belgian offence was also decisive as Great Britain restricted their opponents to a meagre two points during the last quarter.
The home fans were treated to a breathless opening after both teams set a tremendous early tempo, with the hosts quickly onto the front foot. Steph Gandy was thrust into the starting line-up and she repaid the faith of head coach Peter Buckle with a score under the basket to make it 9-4 after a beautiful assist by Stef Collins.
Some tenacious defensive work then laid the foundation for the bright start as Vanderwal completed an exquisite 'and-1' play to make it 16-10. Temi Fagbenle and Azania Stewart were both operating effectively under the basket and the former went coast-to-coast as Great Britain moved 20-12 ahead.
However, Belgium finally gained a stronger foothold in the contest and racked up seven of the last nine points in the opening quarter to make it 22-19 heading into the second period.
Dominique Allen managed to drop her first points of the day to get Great Britain rolling again and Vanderwal continued to influence matters with a score in transition.
Firmly on top, free-throws by Fagbenle gave the home side a first double-digit lead at 31-21, but Belgium responded in style as Julie Vanloo nailed a three-pointer which ignited a 9-0 burst of scoring. Great Britain were locked out for almost five minutes, but Allen snapped the drought from the free-throw line, with home home supporters eventually having to settle for their favourites taking a slender 34-33 lead to the locker rooms at the break.
The third quarter witnessed Belgium surge into the lead after a 7-2 opening, but Vanderwal continued to be a shining light and helped Great Britain keep pace as both teams tussled to open up some daylight.Belgium led 47-46 going into the last quarter, but would soon feel the defensive pressure as Great Britain turned the screw.
Buckle's team forced several turnovers, with Gandy also producing a monstrous and memorable blocked shot.
While Great Britain weren't always fluent themselves, they had the ace in the pack in Vanderwal, who eventually got them over the line. Although in reality, it was a brilliant team effort, which perfectly encapsulated the spirit and chemistry within the camp.
Vanderwal paid tribute to supporters after the game by claiming, "The atmosphere made a big difference down the stretch for us - it was a huge difference in getting the win."
Her words were echoed by head-coach Peter Buckle who added, "The facilities are really great here in Worcester and I hope we can squeeze in even more fans in for the next two home games."
Great Britain now embark on three successive road games against FYR of Macedonia (11 June), Lithuania 15 June) and Belgium (18 June).
They then wrap up their campaign at the University of Worcester Arena with games against FYR of Macedonia (22 June) and Lithuania (25 June), when home fans are being encouraged to get closer to the action and roar the team on to a spot at EuroBasket Women 2015.
The Great Britain senior women will appear at a third successive EuroBasket Women Final Round next summer and that makes for a very important 2014-15 club and college season for those candidates wanting to be on the plane to Hungary and Romania.
We caught up for a Q & A session with point guard Luke Nelson as he embarks on his second season with University of California, Irvine and having helped the under-20 team to their highest ever finish this past summer.