Hoops joy the perfect medicine

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China's women's basketball team lifted the nation's spirits amid the gloom of the coronavirus epidemic by upsetting the odds to secure an Olympic ticket with a hard-fought win over hoops powerhouse Spain.

Despite being outranked by the world No 3, China edged a nail-biting clash in Belgrade 64-62 to clinch qualification for this summer's Tokyo Games and generate some much-needed good news for fans weary of the ongoing virus outbreak back home.

The victory followed an opening win over Britain on Thursday, with China booking its fifth consecutive (ninth overall) trip to the Olympics with a game to spare in the four-team qualifying tournament, where the top three advance to Tokyo.

The tournament was moved from Foshan in Guangdong province to the Serbian capital just a week before it tipped off due to the coronavirus outbreak that has prompted Chinese authorities to impose restrictions on travel and mass gatherings.

Despite the loss of home-court advantage, the Chinese came flying out of the blocks against the sharpshooting Spanish, who won silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

China's hard defense set the tone, with young center Li Yueru punishing Spain by grabbing 15 rebounds to go with 13 points for a productive double-double.

Team China captain Shao Ting and veteran forward Li Meng took over in the fourth quarter, draining clutch scores when needed to hold off Spain's late fightback led by Alba Torrens.

"It's a meaningful victory that we didn't expect to pull off," China's head coach Xu Limin said at the post-game news conference. "And it's so encouraging not just for us earning Olympic qualification but also for all the fans and people back home affected by the virus situation.

"With the tournament relocated overseas at such short notice, we've overcome a lot of difficulties logistically and mentally. Yet our young team still came out strong and focused to get the job done.

"It's the process rather than the result of securing the ticket that gave our team such a valuable test which will benefit us going further at the Olympics."

The team's victory on China's traditional Lantern Festival holiday went viral on social media back home, where fans hailed the players' spirit as an inspiration for the country's battle against the virus, which is believed to have originated in Wuhan, Hubei province.

The hashtag "Chinese women's team advancing to Tokyo" had been viewed 240 million times as of Sunday morning, with some of the country's best-known sports celebrities paying tribute to the team's effort.

"Victory in sport like this cheers the whole nation at such a critical moment. Come on! Wuhan!" wrote Yang Yang, China's first Winter Olympics champion and a former International Olympic Committee member, on her Weibo account on Saturday.

"At a time when the virus outbreak hit the country badly, the women's team's performance, though far away, has given us a timely inspiration to carry on," said Su Qun, chief editor of newspaper Basketball Pioneers.

The team's determination to lift the nation has been obvious all week, with the words 'Wuhan Jia You' (which means 'Wuhan, Stay Strong'-a defiant cry which the lock-downed city's residents have been heard to shout from their apartment blocks) written on their sneakers.

A young squad in the midst of a rebuild, the Chinese women had entered the tournament carrying extra weight on their shoulders, with their male counterparts almost certain set to miss out on the 2020 Olympics following a dismal World Cup campaign as host last year.

The men's failure to secure Asia's only direct berth to the Tokyo Games at the World Cup was considered a big blow to the sport's profile in the world's most populous nation.

In the space of just three days, China's women have gone a long way to repairing that damage.

"I am proud of my players to deliver the promise we made to the fans," said coach Xu. "We will continue honing our young roster in the lead-up to the Tokyo Games for a better performance."

In contrast, the men's squad faces something of a mission impossible after its World Cup flop left it vying with Canada, Greece, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Uruguay in a qualifying group that awards just one spot for Tokyo 2020.

The Chinese women achieved its best Olympic record at the 1992 Barcelona Games, where it finished runner-up to the United States. Saturday's victory over Spain strongly suggests China is well-equipped to improve on its 10th-place finishing at Rio 2016 in Tokyo.

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