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Asian rivals not afraid of favorites China
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With Yao Ming standing on the court, China are simply unbeatable in Asia.

But how about a Yao-less Team China? Just ask China's opponents here at the Asian Basketball Championships.

After being outplayed by China in the last minutes of their clashes in the preliminary round, the coaches of Lebanon and Jordan refuse to throw in towel. Instead, they said they are confident they can beat China if they meet again in the knockout stage.

"I am happy to face China again, I think we will beat them," said Lebanon's Cypriot coach, Dragan Raca.

China play Chinese Taipei in today's quarterfinals while Lebanon take on South Korea, the second-place finishers in the other group. If both win, their rivalry will continue in tomorrow's semifinals.

Raca, the most successful coach in the history of the Cypriot national league, sniffed at pre-tournament expectations that the hosts would win the title with an unbeaten record.

"Actually, we had the chance to put the game into overtime if we scored the last three pointer in the first match. If we can play them again, China will lose. Actually, I know every team here will be out to beat China," he said.

Fast-rising Lebanon are seen as one of the title contenders after importing some ex-NBA players.

Former Phoenix Suns player Jackson Vroman and Matthew Freije, who played with the New Orleans Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks, combined for 47 points during a narrow 71-68 loss to China on Tuesday.

Freije has averaged 18.6 points after six matches in the tournament while Vroman has averaged 16 points, ranking them fourth and ninth in the standings.

China only have New Jersey Nets power forward Yi Jianlian ranked in the top 10, averaging 18.5 points per game.

"I don't care who we play," said Freije, who played last season in China's CBA league. "I think how we are playing right now is very good and we will play better and better. We will beat any team if we play our best."

Even if Lebanon fail to make it to the semifinals, South Korea, led by former NBA center Ha Seung-jin, will be another big hurdle for China.

"Without Yao Ming, this is a good opportunity for us," said Ha, formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers. "If we meet up against China, I'm sure that we will have a good chance to win."

Jordan, who lost to China on Wednesday by six points, are also eager to take revenge - in the final if both can make it.

Jordan coach Mario Palma, who has led his team to two victories over China in the past three years, said he found it hard to accept Wednesday's loss.

"China are the favorites to win the championship. But it's not that easy anymore. It's getting closer between China and other teams. Because all the other teams are improving," said Palma.

Jordan have a quarterfinal tie against the Philippines and will have to beat the winners of another quarterfinal clash between reigning champions Iran and Qatar if they are to reach the final.

Palma also sent a clear warning to his Chinese counterpart, Guo Shiqiang, a formal national team player from Liaoning..

"I have to tell the Chinese coach it's not an easy job. If China want to win, they have to play the best they can play."

Asian rivals not afraid of favorites China

Palma said home-court support and inconsistent refereeing gave China the edge in their group encounter.

"If we played in Jordan, we could have won the match. We had many chances to beat China in the first match but they were supported by the crowd and the referee did not call against Yi. Yi used his elbows lots of times and they were all fouls but they never called against him."

Apart from Jordan and Lebanon, defending champions Iran are also major contenders for the title.

Iran and China, both headed by NBA prime-time players, are the only two unbeaten teams.

Iran's Memphis Grizzlies center Hamed Haddadi has averaged 17 points and a tournament-high 12.3 rebounds and 4.5 blocks and could be involved in a mouthwatering clash with Yi if the two meet in the final.

Arguably seen as Asia's No 1 center after Yao, Haddadi is looking forward to playing China.

"It's good if we can meet China in the final," said Haddadi. "We are a very good team and anything can happen in the final."

(China Daily August 14, 2009)

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