Tuukkanen Buoyant About Finns' Chances

18 January 2005

If Taru Tuukkanen's predictions are correct, it will not be long before Finland is among the elite in women's European basketball.

For the Finnish international, the days of waiting to make her stand in the biggest arenas may soon be over. "Compared to other countries, basketball in Finland hasn't grown that much," Tuukkanen said to PA International. "But in the last few years the women's national team has certainly improved a lot."

The evidence is there for all to see. One look at last summer's European qualifiers shows a Finnish team that is much improved. They lost their opening three games, but in two of those setbacks - against Poland and Bulgaria - they made the opponents sweat for their victories as
their rivals each won by just three points.

"Two or three years ago, we would easily lose by 50 points against Russia but we have proved that nowadays we are a tough rival," said the
Helsinki-born centre who averaged more than 17 points a game in the qualifying.

"We played well against Poland and it's a pity that we didn't win that game, it was so close."

The Finns had to wait until their fourth game to clinch their first victory against Serbia & Montenegro with an outstanding performance from Tuukkanen, who guided her team to triumph with 26 points.

Tuukkanen again led her team to victory against Bulgaria with 21 points. Their 81-67 win allowed them to go into their last qualifying clash against Poland and a chance to make it to the Euro finals for the first time. But it was not to be, with the 1999 European gold winners Poland saving their best performance in their 70-52 victory.

In spite of such a defeat, Tuukkanen believes that Finland can look ahead with optimism to the additional qualifying round in Turkey in August.

With 10 teams competing for just one spot in the Euro finals it will not be easy, although not impossible. "It's going to be difficult but the chances are there to be taken and we will go out with a winning mentality," said Tuukkanen.

"What I am convinced of is that in two or three years time we will be playing in the European finals."

If you seek the answer to their progress you will not find it in Finland but elsewhere.

"Last summer we only had three players that played in Finland and the rest were playing either in Europe or in the United States," said Tuukkanen, now in her third campaign in the Spanish Liga Femenina with Mann Filter Zaragoza.

She recently helped them reach the Copa de la Reina final but they were beaten by Perfumerias in overtime.

"To play abroad not only allows you to mature as a person but also to
improve your game and inevitably to improve the standard of basketball in our country," she said.

That was the case for Tuukkanen, who played college basketball at Xavier
University in Ohio alongside her national team-mate, Reetta Piipari.

"It was the most difficult decision I took and looking back the best
decision I have made in my life," said Tuukkanen. "It was there that I fell in love with basketball and I learned how to really play the game."

Tuukkanen ended her college career as part of XU's most successful team. The centre from Helsinki helped lead the Musketeers to a 31-3 record and a trip to the regional final of the NCAA Tournament in her last year. She graduated as the school's all-time leader with 193 blocks, was second in scoring with 1,785 points and third in career rebounding with 857.

"My arrival to Xavier coincided with a spectacular growth in women's
basketball there. Before it wasn't well known as a basketball college but now it is," said the 27-year-old.

The sports management graduate is already helping her compatriots make that crucial move. "I've always wanted to be an agent, that is what I want to do when I finish my playing career," said Tuukkanen. "I have helped some of my compatriots move to European leagues and to the
United States because I believe it's an invaluable experience that will help basketball in our country."

But the main problem remains to be solved.

"We need to be given more financial help by the Federation," said Tuukkanen. "We should be able to train as professionals. Unlike other teams, we don't get any financial benefits when playing with the national team.

"This summer we will have to train for three months and it's normal that those players that don't earn much money cannot afford to spend so many days training because they have to go out and work.

"It doesn't help when you don't have players available for tournaments because of this situation."

"Personally, I do it because I want to help my country and basketball in Finland but it's a problem that needs to be tackled."

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