EUROBASKET WOMEN QUALIFIERS
|'Our goal is to follow the men's example, get Finland on the basketball map and stay there,' Tuukkanen says of her team's aim in the EuroBasket Women Qualification Round |
By Paul Nilsen
Finland star Taru Tuukkanen is determined to follow in the footsteps of the men's national team whose success at EuroBasket 2011 in Lithuania put the country firmly on the basketball map.
In stark contrast to the progress made by their male colleagues, the women's team laboured through their last qualifying campaign, only managing a solitary victory in their failed bid to make it to EuroBasket Women in Poland.
However, a turnaround in fortunes this summer under new play-caller Anton Mirolybov, who has been promoted from coaching his country at youth level, would not necessarily represent an overly dramatic improvement.
This is because Finland lost a bunch of relatively close games (by six points or less) last time out, something Tuukkanen was, not surprisingly, keen to highlight.
"I agree that we are not as far away as people might think," she explained.
"A few years ago we lost many games by 30 points but now and during the last two years, we have been able to stay in the game and play for the win right until the end.
"Now we want to take the next step and this is to start winning those games and then finally make it to a EuroBasket Women tournament.
"We have a new coach this summer and we will play a different kind of basketball," continued Tuukkanen.
"What we need to do is learn the new system quickly and get good team chemistry with us having many new players as well.
"Also, I think a big key will be the mental aspect, believing that we can win and not going into the games just to see what happens."
DO IT LIKE THE MEN
Tuukkanen, just like about everybody else in the country, took note of what the men's national team accomplished in Lithuania.
"Obviously what the men did last year was awesome to watch," she said.
"They have done an amazing job for many years now and finally got their prize in the last EuroBasket.
"Our goal is to be able to follow them and do the same - to get Finland on the basketball map and to stay there!"
|34-year-old Tuukkanen is not thinking about retirement yet, but when she eventually does leave she is confident that Heta Korpivaara will succesfully assume the role of the leader of the national team |
Finland will go up against Greece, Latvia, Luxembourg and Italy which is hugely interesting since just about each and every team is rebuilding to some extent and will be heavily reliant upon young players.
While most neutrals may agree the draw has been kind to Finland and could have been a whole lot worse, Tuukkanen isn't foolish to think it will be anything different than immensely difficult.
"I think any group at this level is tough for us, but at the same time we are getting better and will not give any easy wins for anyone," she claims.
"Latvia and Greece have played in just about all the EuroBasket Women tournaments and even Olympics and World Championships, so they are the favourites and we will try to challenge them.
"Italy beat us twice last time we were in the same group while Luxembourg is not as known but will fight hard for sure.
"All teams may have players not playing this summer, including us, but what will matter is how the players that do play manage to become a team."
SEASONED VETERANS AND THE FUTURE
Indeed Finland themselves are continuing the trend within Group E of rebuilding with a new generation and of the 17 players named on the preliminary roster, a staggering 11 are aged 21 or younger.
"We do have many great young players coming," agreed Tuukkanen.
"The Federation has worked a lot with the youth programs in the past few years and it is starting to show.
"I think I am the only true veteran right now, considering I am seven years older that the second oldest players!
"I still feel I can go on forever, but even when my career comes to an end, the next generation led by Heta Korpivaara will be able to continue for many years because they are not that old yet."
Having led her team in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocked shots during the last qualification campaign, Finnish basketball fans will be hoping Tuukkanen keeps going as long as possible.
When she does eventually call time on her career, you can expect her to exchange her basketball shoes for a clipboard -just don't put the retirement party in your diary just yet since the 34-year-old is banking on several more years in a Finland national team vest.
"I have just finished the highest level of coaching class that can be done in Finland to stay involved in basketball after my playing days are over, but right now, I don't even want to think about it," she declares.
"My goal is to be able to play well past 40 like Taj McWilliams for example or Elena Tornikidou.
"Going to France for Eurobasket Women would be a great fulfilment though for the 14 years of playing on the national team and never reaching the Finals!"
The full Finland roster is: Meral Bedretdin (Espoo), Meriem Eerikinharju (ToPo Helsinki), Krista Gross (University of North Carolina), Annika Holopainen (Espoo), Evita Iiskola (Espoo), Vilma Kesanen (Lappeenrannan Catz), Janniina Koivunen (Thomasville Prep), Heta Korpivaara (Ferrol), Linda-Lotta Lehtoranta (Peli-Karhut), Emmi Leino (Espoo), Anni Makitalo (Kara Trutnov), Sofia Pelander (Turun Riento), Dionne Pounds (Lappeenrannan Catz), Henna Salomaa (Zamora), Tiina Sten (Cadi La Seu), Taru Tuukkanen (Zamora), Laura Wilson (Espoo).