It’s all about Chinese efficiency

The victorious Chinese team with the trophy.-S. R. RAGHUNATHAN

China enthralled the spectators with its pace and precision. Its stature as the superpower in Asia was never in doubt. By S. Thyagarajan.

It was a fiesta, a festival of basketball that captured the hearts and imagination of the aficionados across the country. Staged for the first time in India, the FIBA-Asia women’s Championship in Chennai gave the viewers a new vista of the game played at a different pitch, pace and precision, as exemplified by China, the superpower in the continent, defending champion Korea, and to some extent by Japan and Chinese Taipei.

With a performance that was technically proficient and embellished with a remarkable amalgam of strategy, style and system, China reclaimed the gold it lost to Korea in 2007.

The seven-in-a-row sweep in the tournament not only projected the majesty, mode and methods of the Chinese efficiency but also confirmed the team’s stature as the leader in Asia and one of the top 10 in the world.

Coach Sun Feng Wu’s magnificent 12 — seven of them had featured in the intense Olympic battle back home in Beijing last year — were a spectacle to behold.

If the spotlight initially was on the seasoned Miao Lijie, who turned out for the famous Chicago Sacramento in the US women’s league, the tournament progressively came to be dominated by the gangling, pony-tailed centre, Chen Nan. At 26, and standing 197cm tall, Chen literally towered over her rivals.

What separated Chen from the others, and even from her hugely talented team-mates, was her versatility. When on the offensive, she was ferocious, storming her way through the rival line of defence like a tornado. Endowed with the extraordinary skill of using both hands to basket, she could not be easily contained under the board even by rangy defenders. She was breathtaking while shooting with her left hand, curling her arm over and sinking the ball into hoop.

And in a trice, she would be back under her board — she had to take only a few strides to move from one end of the court to the other — to repulse a rival attack. Chen’s passing was also accurate, impeccable one could say, and this kept up the tempo of the Chinese attack, forcing the rival teams to slip into errors. It was a sight to watch this lady move up and down without a hint of hindrance or fatigue.

If Chen was the all-rounder, Bang Bang, at the backcourt, was the one who initiated moves that developed into threatening raids. When it came to free-throws, Chen Xiaoli and Liu Dan were the ones to excel.

To put it in a nutshell, it is a waste of energy trying to pinpoint who among the Chinese was outstanding. The wealth of talent that Sun Feng Wu has is enviable.

On the mark… Chen Nan (right) of China shoots in the match against Japan in the FIBA-Asia Championship. The Chinese hoopster is immensely talented and versatile.-K. PICHUMANI

Sunmin Jung, 34, was the inspiration for Korea. Two defeats against China, in the league stage as well as in the final, meant the Koreans had to be satisfied with a silver medal. The only team in the history of the championship to have figured in all editions from 1965 — 23 to be precise — Korea has a record of winning a medal in each of these tournaments.

Korea, which began the tournament as the defending champion, swept one rival after another, securing 100-plus points in three matches, including in the game against host India, until it faced the mighty China. It was transparent that the Koreans lacked the vibrancy of the Chinese.

Whenever Sunmin was marked tightly — every team attempted to do it — Jung Eun Sun and Eun Joo rose to the occasion, scoring off neatly executed shots from all angles. The manner in which Korea recovered to beat Japan 82-68 and then stood shoulder to shoulder with China, going down by a mere three points in the league stage, reflected the defending champion’s fighting qualities.

What Japan, the bronze medal winner, lacked was the height and speed of the Chinese. Barring Kumiko Yamada, the rest were no match for the Chinese and Koreans. Japan, however, had a dynamite in Yuko Oga. She was the motivator of her side. The consistency with which she scored three-pointers bewildered the rival defence. Obata and Mitani proved valuable now and then, but the Japanese should be more than happy to have retained the bronze and earned a place in the next World Championship along with China and Korea.

The three other teams in this Elite Zone — Chinese Taipei, Thailand and India — more or less had similar shortcomings. Inconsistency was one of them. Their standard of play was also average in a majority of the matches.

It was certainly disappointing that India failed to figure in the semifinals. With proper planning this could have been achieved, especially with the team having a player of the class of Geethu Anna Jose, who emerged the highest scorer with 132 points in the championship.

Geethu, who plays in the Australian League, has carved a place for herself in Indian basketball. The team looked up to her in every match and she did not disappoint. But she single-handedly couldn’t do much against teams like China and Korea. Contributions from Shiba Maggon, Raspreet Sidhu and Prasanti Singh did enhance the value of India’s showing to some extent, but they weren’t enough to overcome even teams like Thailand and Taipei.

Top-scorer Geethu Anna Jose with the trophy.-PTI

Everything looked lost for India after it succumbed to Thailand. And in a must-win match against Malaysia to avoid demotion, the team clicked as a unit. The rangy Harjeet Kaur, who scored 31 points, was the star performer for India. The host’s 90-74 victory was heart-warming in more than one sense. India, thus, retained its place in the Elite Zone, while Thailand dropped down to the next level following its defeat to Lebanon, the best team from Level II.

There were misgivings about whether Chennai could host an event of this magnitude ever since Taipei declined to stage it. This was largely due to the legal problems confronting the state association. But the BFI (Basketball Federation of India) took upon itself to conduct the tournament thanks to the sponsors led by True Value Homes (TVH). The State Government stepped in to refurbish the J. N. Indoor Stadium at a considerable cost.

Thanks to the energy and enthusiasm displayed by the two working presidents of the BFI’s Organising Committee, K. N. Ramajayam and Ilango, and guidance from the federation secretary, Harish Sharma and ad hoc committee member Ragothaman, the tournament went off well.

Sheikh Saud bin Ali Al-Thani, President, FIBA-Asia Basketball Federation, gave away the trophy.

THE RESULTS

Final: China 91 (Lan Bian 14, Fan Zhang 11, Ma Zhengyu 18, Chen Xiaoli 13, Chen Nan 17) beat Korea 71 (Yeon Ha Beon 29, Sunmin Jung 17). Half-time: 39-31.

Third place: Japan 72 (Noriko Koiso 21, Ai Mitani 16, Yuko Oga 10) beat Chinese Taipei 57 (Hui-Yun Cheng 17). Half-time: 39-19.

SPECIAL PRIZES Top rebounder: Asami Yoshida (Japan-54). Top three-pointer: Park Jung Eun (Korea-19). Most Valuable Player: Lan Bian (China).

Most Promising Player: Sandra Najem (Lebanon).