The Tall Ferns will begin their last-ditch Olympic qualifying bid tonight against the Czech Republic, but they already have one eye on their next opponents.
Coach Kennedy Kereama isn’t about to "throw" their opening pool game at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Ankara, Turkey, but he concedes the Czechs – ranked fourth in the world and runners-up at the last world championships – may be a bridge too far for the 16th-ranked Kiwi women.
“They’re obviously a classy team,” says Kereama. “We’ve been lucky enough to play them a few times over the years and their squad hasn’t changed a lot since we played them last.”
That would be four years ago, at the Beijing Olympics, when the giant Czechs emerged 90-59 victors and went on to lose to eventual silver medallists Australia in the quarterfinals.
They’re tall in every position. With an average height of 1.86m (6ft 1in), they have six players taller than the tallest Tall Fern – Karlene Kingi at 1.88m (6ft 2in) – with centre Petra Kulichova standing 1.98m (6ft 6in).
“They’re a huge team to play first up,” admits Kereama. “We’re going to have to play a fairly well-planned game – we’ll have to execute our defence very well.
“We’ll have to extend our pressure up the floor and try to negate their size in the paint. We also can’t afford to have more than 10 turnovers, which is something we’ve been good at over the past couple of years.”
But Kereama also hinted that, if the game starts to get away from his team, he may shut up shop to concentrate on tomorrow’s more winnable fixture against 12th-ranked Argentina.
“Any betting person in the world would say our best chance is against Argentina,” he says. “It would be one of those tough decisions you have to make as a coach – you don’t want to expend a lot of emotional energy trying to win a game that’s out of reach.
“There’s a balance.”
Argentina aren’t as physically imposing – their average height (1.78m) is shorter than the Ferns’ (1.80m), but they’re combative.
“I don’t want to say they’re dirty, but they hit you hard. There’s a lot of scrappiness off the ball and they have a couple of real warriors on their team.
“They play a very physical brand of basketball, which is something the Tall Ferns have also prided ourselves on over the years. But I think we’re more skilled than we’ve been in the past and don’t have to rely on that physicality as much.
“I think we can cause some match-up problems for them.”
Kereama’s biggest worry is a draw that sees the South Americans able to scout both their pool opponents before they play them – New Zealand doesn’t have that luxury.
“One thing we can’t do is leave it up to fate,” he says. “If we lose to Czechs Republic and beat Argentina, but then Argentina somehow beat the Czechs, it comes down to percentages.”
And that’s the balancing act.
“The edge we’ve got over them is that we’ve played games together – we’ve had a few games out on the floor.”
The Tall Ferns have spent the past two weeks in China, winning just two of their eight fixtures, but honing on their structure at both ends of the court. They’ve beaten African champions Angola and lost a two-point heartbreaker to Asian champions China – both teams have already qualified for London.
Medical staff have managed some niggling injuries – the most serious a shoulder injury to captain Natalie Taylor – and all players are now fit and ready for the challenge.
The Tall Ferns line-up against Czech Republic tonight (1.45am NZ) is:
Micaela Cocks, Toni Edmondson, Jillian Harmon, Jordan Hunter, Karlene Kingi, Casey Lockwood, Kate McMeeken-Ruscoe, Charmian Mellars, Erin Rooney, Natalie Taylor (captain), Lisa Wallbutton, Noni Wharemate
Follow the game at http://london2012.fiba.com/