Geethu Anna Jose helped India top the FIBA Asia Championship's Second Division in Incheon. She also emerged the top scorer with 197 points from six games for a superb average of 32.8 points per game. By Stan Rayan.

Nine years ago, the young coach Venugopal had to show a lot of patience in persuading an awkwardly tall girl to try out basketball. She was a good athlete, specialising in long jump, high jump and high hurdles. "I wanted to continue with athletics, like my sister Nittu. I took up basketball very reluctantly," said Geethu Anna Jose. "But now, I am very happy that I made the change."

The nation too is happy that Geethu Anna Jose switched to basketball, for the other day Geethu, 22, helped India to the Premier Division in Asian women's basketball in South Korea. India topped the FIBA Asia Championship's Second Division in Incheon and made history by qualifying for the six-team elite group for the first time. At the championship's next edition, in 2009, India will figure alongside some of the world's best teams, including World No. 9 Korea, China (No. 10), Japan (No. 16) and Chinese Taipei (No. 22).

Suddenly a team which was virtually Asia's punching bag for years, is being watched with a lot of interest by the continent's giants. India defeated almost all the Second Division teams by huge margins and in the crucial playoff for the Premier Division berth, it whipped Malaysia by nearly 20 points and finished fifth overall.

Geethu emerged the top scorer of the championship with 197 points from six games — a superb average of 32.8 points per game. The 185-centimetre tall centre was also the championship's top re-bounder. The Southern Railway star finished the event on a high note, sinking in 47 points against Malaysia — a Premier Division team — to break the championship record for a single game.

"That was a stunner! I didn't expect that," said Geethu. "I was on target very nicely in the previous games, so our assistant national coach Dimal Mathew asked the other girls to feed me heavily against Malaysia."

Clubs in the United States and Chile are now keen to have the Indian in their side. "But I've not decided on anything," said Geethu.

Late last year, Geethu became the first Indian woman to play for a foreign club. She made such an impact while playing for Ringwood Hawks in Australia that she was named the Big Victoria League's `Player of the Month' in August. "I was also the first Second Division player to be selected for the First Division's All Stars team," said Geethu, who will be returning to the Australian club soon.

Geethu feels that India has the potential to be among Asia's top three. "We should beat Chinese Taipei in 2009. And in the 2011 championship, we should be able to get past Japan, which is currently Asia's number three. That's my goal and I'm sure it can be achieved," she said. If India manages to do that, it could get into the top 15 in the world — a big jump from its current position of 39.

"The Chinese are very tall but the Koreans and Japanese have a very fast game. We should now concentrate on improving our speed and shooting percentage," Geethu said.

Geethu's game underwent a sea change early last year when she played against her idol, Australian Lauren Jackson, during the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. That league game changed her life. "I was watching Lauren, the world's best player, very closely when we played Australia. She played for just 20 minutes but she was the top scorer by a big margin. She was stunning, doing everything ... picking up rebounds, running, shooting from outside. I didn't know one player could do so much."

Geethu's game was never the same after watching Lauren play. Her shooting percentage went up remarkably and at the Commonwealth Games, the Kerala youngster stood third in the scorers' table that was headed by Lauren Jackson. The performance helped Geethu sign up for the Australian club Ringwood Hawks. The rest is history.