The Pride Of Belarus

18.06.2008

Never had the words Belarus, Olympics and basketball been used in the same breath before this month.

Now, you're going to be hearing it a lot.

Yes, the Belarus women clinched a spot in the Beijing Games at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in

Sviatlana Volnaya (Belarus)
Volnaya spent most of the second half on the bench.
Madrid with a dramatic overtime win against Brazil - one of the traditional powerhouses in the world.

The success continued a dramatic rise to prominence in the game for the small country that had not even appeared in a EuroBasket final round before competing last summer in Chieti, Italy, and winning a bronze medal.

Lev Pimenov, the president of the Belarusian Basketball Federation, has told FIBA Europe of the joy the women's team has brought the country.

"What happened in Madrid will go down in history as one of the most prominent achievements of Belorussian basketball," he said.

"And the fact that our team managed to overcome Brazil - a formidable side which currently ranks fourth in the world - makes it all the more impressive.

"The epic quarter-final was filled with drama which caused sport fans from all over Belarus to tune in for the live coverage and cheer for our girls!

"All the players lived up to our hopes and expectations, showing some great basketball and imposing their will on the opponents in overtime.

"The success of our women's national team is unprecedented in the history of team sports in Belarus."

In Madrid, the players were sky high after the triumph over Brazil.

"We are so, so happy. I feel so good, emotional," center Marina Kress said before being hugged by national team coach Anatoly Buyalski - the mastermind of the Belarus success story.

Given one of the toughest roads to China at the qualifying event, Belarus lost their opener to Cuba.

But they beat Chinese Taipei and then, in the vital quarter-final with a place in Beijing at stake, won 86-79 in overtime against one of the world's most famous teams, Brazil.

"I have no words to describe this feeling," said Belarus point guard Natallia Marchanka.

"We wanted it, and when we lost to Cuba, we just said, `Hey, nothing bad happened. We're going to continue playing, take some lessons out of it.'

"We came out and played, not against silver medalists, Olympic medalists, but against a regular team (Brazil) and did our best. We did it."

Belarus is a team that can play beautiful basketball, though that wasn't really the case in Spain with the players looking tired, even exhausted after very long and hard campaigns with their clubs.

Many play basketball in the Russian Superleague.

Now this team will have a short break before gathering again to prepare for Beijing.

"This will be the high point of my career, for me and everybody," said Tatyana Troina, the 1.88m shooting guard/small forward who had 10 points in the win over Brazil.

So what about that crazy quarter-final that will never be forgotten for anyone who was lucky enough to be inside the Telefonica Arena to watch?

Belarus had opened up a 12-point lead but Brazil's pressing defense got the South Americans back into the contest.

The South American giants went in front in the third quarter.

Troina, whose husband is Andrey Krivonos, the captain of the Belarus men's national team, made each free throw after being fouled behind the three-point arc early in the fourth quarter to cut Brazil's lead to 58-55.

She also buried a three-pointer with 1:09 to go to pull Belarus to within 72-70.

The star of the show was undoubtedly Anastasiya Verameyenka, the same world class player that shot a tournament-best 69% from the floor at last year's EuroBasket.

The 1.92m center made one of two at the line with five seconds remaining to force the extra period and once in the overtime, she dominated.

Verameyenka started with a three-point play, and then split a pair at the charity stripe to make it 76-74 with 3:45 remaining.

With 3:02 left, Brazil's excellent Micaela soared in to attempt a game-tying lay-up only for Verameyenka to swat the attempt.

She would finish with a game-high three blocks.

Then with 2:35 remaining, Verameyenka's basket in the paint pushed the lead to 78-74.

She finished with 19 points on a scintillating eight of nine shooting from the floor. Verameyenka also had a game-high 10 rebounds.

Marchanka, the unofficial team spokeswoman, said: "When we came out for overtime, it was all about us.

"Thanks to Anastasiya Verameyenka, it was amazing. I can't find the words. Thanks to all the girls. Thanks so much to her."

Svetlana Volnaya, bothered by a serious toe injury all week, spent most of the second half out of the game.

"I was on the bench, but it was very exhausting to be there," she said.

"I was jumping and going crazy. I feel like I played 40 minutes."

Basketball supremo Pimenov believes the success of the women's team will serve as a launchpad for greater things in Belarus.

"Yes, this is the first time our country will be represented in the team sports' programme of the Olympic Games," he said.

"Still, the true value of the Madrid victory is even more significant.

"I'm sure that this outstanding accomplishment will inspire thousands of boys and girls here in Belarus to go to basketball sports schools and continue the glorious tradition started by the current generation of players."

The enduring image of Spain for Belarus basketball fans will no doubt be the end of the Brazil game, and the celebrations that followed.

More than anything, Marchanka and her smiling teammates were relieved.

"This is history," she said.

She had a message for the neutrals out there that have been applauding Belarus ever since they went on their surprising run at the EuroBasket.

"Keep cheering for us," she said.


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