By Paul Nilsen
|Ana Lelas is back and ready to roll for Croatia|
A cornerstone of the Croatian team, Lelas has been reflecting on what has been a remarkable couple of years.
FROM SURPRISE TO EXPECTATION
Two years ago, Croatia walked off court against Montenegro staring into the abyss, having lost two of their first three games in Katowice. They looked certain to be on the plane back to Zagreb, but in the face of adversity, they rallied to eventually finish fifth - despite losing Lelas to injury.
"The loss against Montenegro was a turning point for us" concurred the forward.
"There was nothing else to lose and we played with no pressure which we should have done earlier.
"We were the biggest surprise and the injuries made us stronger as a team, when nobody expected us to win.
"It was definitely hard to be done with the tournament after the third game, but I don't regret it because we did a great job finishing fifth.
"It's hard to watch games knowing that you can't help, but everything happens for a reason and with experience, you learn how to handle it!"
She continued, "This tournament will be important for us and maybe even harder because we're coming as a team who finished fifth and so automatically there's more pressure.
"It's going to prove whether we have grown as a team and if we know how to handle more pressure.
"We need to step up and if we can get the same result to qualify for the FIBA World Championship, it would be amazing and that's certainly our goal."
LESSONS FROM LONDON
As well as their exploits in Poland, Lelas and Croatia also took their nation to the Olympic Games for the first time and it won't be something she is likely to forget in a hurry.
"It was a huge surprise and we wrote history - you can't compare the experience with anything else" she insisted.
"I think we still live in those moments and we will our whole life. It was a great feeling being surrounded with great athletes from all over the world.
NO MORE MANDIR, LOVE FOR FRANCE
|No Mandir, no problem for Croatia|
The retirement of Sandra Mandir, who made the All Tournament Team in 2011, leaves a void to fill for Croatia, but Lelas is adamant her team must move on and face up to a tricky Group D.
She said, "Sandra was very important for this team and she was one of the best scorers.
"I think we have to accept that she is not with us anymore, turn the page and not look back.
Now other players have to step up and pay off all this time that they have been working patiently waiting for their opportunity.
"The Group is tough without doubts" admitted the 30-year-old.
"I haven't seen Lithuania playing much and Belarus we played two years ago at a tournament in Spain, but I know Tatyana Troina isn't going to play.
"I think all three teams are good teams and tough. Every game will be different and we must adapt our game - it will be a very interesting group.
"Also French fans were cheering for us in Poland and so I'm expecting the same in France" laughed Lelas who received French citizenship after seven consecutive years playing club basketball in the country.
"France is my second home and I'm really excited to play here in front of the amazing fans who really know how to support women's basketball.
"I'm sure they are really excited for the French team who are one of my favourites to win the title!"
Lelas and Croatia open up their account in Trelaze against Lithuania.