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Critics change their tune on national team
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Chinese media have hailed its women's basketball team after it won three consecutive games at the "Good Luck Beijing" International Invitational this week.

Playing for the first time in Wukesong Arena, the Olympic venue, China beat South Korea, World Championships winner Australia and New Zealand. Despite its opponents' limited rosters, Tom Maher's side has made headlines among local media.

Chinese center Chen Nan drives to the basket against Suzy Batkovic of Australia during the "Good Luck Beijing" test event. China won 67-64. Xinhua

"Good job," Beijing Youth Daily wrote. "Australian coach Maher finally found the right way for his Chinese women after three years of research. The consecutive victories were the No 1 highlight in the fancy Olympic stadium."

The 55-year-old Maher, who was recruited by the Chinese Basketball Association, after the women's team finished ninth at the Athens Olympics in 2004, had been criticized for his inability to introduce major changes after taking the helm.

But the team's winning ways have settled the critics, who now appear to understand Maher's way of coaching.

"He didn't achieve anything of note in his bid to make China play like Australia, but the new team at Wukesong gave us some hope," commented the Basketball Pioneers newspaper. "His efforts finally paid off, as our Chinese ladies look ready to win big games at the Beijing Olympics."

In a poll conducted by Sina.com, 59 percent of those who responded said they believed the team was in its best shape for three years, while another 26 percent said it was bouncing back from its record-worst 12th showing at the World Championships in 2006.

China used to be a powerhouse in women's basketball in the 1990s, winning silver medals at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and World Championships in Australia two years later.

But it struggled in 2000, failing to qualify for the Sydney Games, and this misfortune was followed by a string of modest performances on the international stage.

However, Bob Elphinston, president of the International Basketball Federation, is confident China will once again be a force to reckon with at the Beijing Games.

"The Olympics will be the best chance for China to return to the world elite," he said. "Young and talented players have shown their confidence and strength in international tournaments in the past two years. I don't think it's time to talk about a downfall.

"China has a bunch of high-level internationals with the world's top teams. It hired Maher and had two players play in the WNBA. They have improved a lot."

The 2008 Good Luck Beijing event had Olympic champion the United States and world champion Australia as contenders. Other teams included New Zealand, Cuba and South Korea.

"The US and Australia are the world's top teams. Cuba is a new title-contender. It's a great chance to play against these teams as a preparation for the 2008 Olympics."

NBA taste

The Wukesong Arena, the most modern basketball stadium in China and one of the best in the world, will not only host the Beijing Games basketball tournament, but also gives players and spectators a feeling for NBA-style matches.

A large, four-sided screen is suspended from the roof, with a 200-m-long flashing screen circling the seating area.

"It felt like I was on an NBA court," South Korea's coach Jung Duk-hwa said after Saturday's game.

Lisa Leslie, Los Angeles Sparks' WNBA center, said Wukesong Arena has first-class service and hardware facilities.

"The court, lighting, locker room and the bathroom, even the hotels nearby, are very good here. It's one of the best stadiums in the world.

"The Chinese should be proud of themselves to build such a wonderful arena," US coach Anne Donova said.

The stadium, which has an 18,000 capacity (12,000 for the Olympics), will host the men's and women's basketball tournaments from Aug 9-27.

(China Daily April 23, 2008)


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