12:15 tip-off and we are underway in Ljubljana’s leg of the group stage for FIBA Women’s EuroBasket 2023. Slovakia and Hungary both started off quite shaky on the offensive end, with careless turnovers the story early on. Hungary were all smiles in their training session yesterday and after a rusty start, they were able to tighten things defensively late in the first quarter, with the offence following in the second.
After the game Hungarian centre Virág Kiss shared that this was: “a really hard win for us because the first game is always hard.” She went on to say that: “[Hungary] were talking about how [they] had to win because it was the most important game for [them]” and that they were in fact “shaking a little bit… but ‘til the end we fought so that’s why we could get the win.”
Slovakia’s defensive system and variety enabled them to dictate a few patches of the game and after stringing some good three-point shooting together they were well in this game, but these teams are far from their best.
Moving forward, Kiss highlighted defence as a key in this team maximising its talents: “Our defence was not how we wanted so that was our biggest problem but if it will be better, then we can do everything.”
Next up we have Serbia and Turkey. In practice, Serbia was organised, determined, connected and their chemistry was in full effect with a heavy serving of healthy competition, this team is on a mission. After practice, I asked head coach Marina Maljkovic how she liked her team’s energy levels.
“Regular, a regular practice for us. Like always before the beginning of the big championship without any difference, I wouldn’t say there’s any difference,” she said.
If this is the standard Serbia holds themselves to then the rest of the competition needs to stay on high alert. As for how sharp her team was, Malkjkovic stated that her team was definitely ready. Although she labelled her team as underdogs due to a change in the generation of players she wasn’t in the business of making excuses, embracing the opportunity for what it was.
As for Turkey, their physical presence in both longitude and latitude is far from being maximised. Bigs not named Teaira McCowan rarely even look at the basket, with kick-outs and a loss of deep post position ubiquitous in the game plan. The players aren’t empowered and there’s limited nuance to Turkey’s approach, their system is being followed too stringently. If they are to have any success moving forward the game plan needs a full upheaval with some room for players to be players.
Again, we had a messy matchup early on and Serbian lead guard Yvonne Anderson told me that she and her team weren’t surprised by it so long as they stayed in control: “It didn’t feel like we were in fear of losing the game.”
Serbia were able to find some clarity in the chaos, turning Turkey over possession after possession late in the first, allowing them to get downhill and although it didn’t lead to much success on the scoreboard, it had them firmly in the driver’s seat for this game. I asked Anderson if this was part of the game plan or a by-product of more intense defence.
“No, we’re Serbia, that’s always our game plan. Especially this season with our team we know how important it is. It’s one of our main things, turning them over so we can run. We delivered on that game plan in spurts,” she said.
On their ability to get downhill and put Turkey in compromising positions, she continued: “I think even Marina will tell you that maybe we didn’t make the right reads on some of them but the idea is to get down to where we want to get, don’t stop in the mid-area, go all the way and as it progresses and we get our rhythm we’re gonna see the reads then we’re gonna get the finishes then we’re gonna hit our teammates in the right places.”
There’s a trust in the system from the top down in the Serbian locker room and there won’t be any easy nights coming against them. They have a razor-sharp focus on execution, with production coming as a result of having faith in their dynamic offensive system and a connected, selfless, hard-working defence.
Into the evening we go and the host nation Slovenia is coming up against Great Britain. The feeling in the Stožice Arena was rising with the home crowd bopping their heads to Joker Out by Carpe Diem 20 minutes before tip. Blokes were smackin’ the shit out of a few drums, spurring Slovenia on to a solid start. They were getting all of the looks they wanted and made Great Britain either work hard or rely on hero ball from Sydney Wallace. It was a physical game led by the poms, but Slovenia wasn’t going to get bullied in their own house. They were more than ready for anything and wouldn’t be beaten in the hard work battle, this is the type of heart you expect to see from a host nation. Slovenian captain Teja Oblak beat the buzzer on a three at the end of the first quarter, igniting an already fiery crowd and bringing the hosts up 23-11.
After the game, Wallace understood that basketball is a game of runs: “Teams are gonna go on runs, the goal is to not get too down, get too high because you know the teams always gonna make a run. Our main goal, our main focus was just to stay focused,” she said.
Slovenia’s lead would get out to as much as 18, winning the scoreboard 29-11, but Great Britain were coming.
After the game, Wallace credited defensive effort and great team effort as the catalysts for their rally in the second quarter. Slowly chipping away and staying the course, the poms showed great resolve. By the end of the third, they had the lead due to solidifying their defence and working for clean looks on the other end.
“We know that Slovenia has great shooters and that they’re a great team. As you see, we have great shooters, we have a great team too so we just wanted to continue to compete,” Sydney added.
Wallace and her teammates understood how big the task was going into the game and how much bigger it got with Slovenia on fire. Both of these teams showed a never-back-down attitude, something that you can never feel safe betting against. Their mental approach and fight could see them getting out of the group stage.
Germany and France finish off proceedings for day one with the latter only trailing Spain in the power rankings coming into EuroBasket. As expected, France looked very comfortable on the court, even with Germany’s early lead. A young, revamped German uniform showed flashes of what was to come but the French are a force to be reckoned with. There’s a reason they have that number two power ranking, that isn’t just handed to teams. Germany’s individual brilliance was on display, however, and this is a team to keep your eye on beyond this tournament. Their youthful energy is palpable, bringing consistency and chemistry that will define this team moving forward.
Day one of the group stage in Ljubljana has already delivered some unexpected outcomes. Let’s hope there’s more of this to follow.