Hoops heroes do nation proud
Even coming up short in its battle against the sport's Goliath, Team China did more than enough to do the country proud with a national record-tying runner-up finish at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup.
Twenty eight years after winning a silver medal at the world championship for the first time, Team China did it again last week, yet in a more convincing way after it overwhelmed a group of international heavyweights in style to make the final before losing to undisputed women's hoops power the United States on Saturday in Sydney.
Despite the 83-61 loss to the 11-time Cup winner, Team China's tenacity and resilience without top scorer Li Meng against the world No 1 team earned respect from home and abroad while lifting the whole nation's spirit on China's National Day holiday.
"Throughout this tournament, you fought as a team with the motherland in mind and never backed down when facing tough opponents against long odds," read a congratulatory statement from the General Administration of Sport of China.
"Your excellent performance and record-tying results were testament to the aspirational and confident image of Chinese youth, and made a major contribution to the building of a sporting power while sending a perfect birthday gift to the country."
Cheered on by over 15,000 fans, mostly from the local Chinese community, at the SuperDome in Sydney, Team China kept up with the pace of the US in the first half, trailing by only 10 points at halftime. The defending champion stepped up a gear on both ends in the third quarter to close out the game against a young Chinese squad which had to adapt to the absence of prolific scorer Li Meng who was sidelined by a conditioning issue.
Star center Li Yueru, who played in the WNBA last year, registered a double-double — 19 points and 12 rebounds — but it was the collective effort of an encounter that oozed class which really caught the eye. Four US players scored in double digits, including tournament MVP A'ja Wilson (19).
Head coach Zheng Wei hailed the breakout run in Sydney as a major learning curve for the rebuilding Team China.
"We showed our game, our style and our fighting spirit to the world at this tournament. We overcame some mental challenges to take down some international powerhouses and gained a lot of valuable experience here," said Zheng, who took over Team China in May, in the post-final news conference.
With highlights, such as guard Wang Siyu's game-winning free throws in the semifinal against Australia and Li Meng's step-back 3s, going viral online, Team China's World Cup journey and the tournament in general garnered massive attention on social media.
"You have prepared for this moment together as a team. You gals go on, play hard, play smart, have fun and leave it all on the line," NBA superstar LeBron James said in a video post before the final.
As sweet as last week's journey was, head coach Zheng remembers where it all started.
Once the dominant force in Asia, the Chinese women's team suffered a major slump following the retirement of veterans after the London 2012 Olympics. The program hit rock-bottom in 2015 when an 85-50 defeat to close neighbor Japan at the Asian Cup final severely tarnished the squad's image, prompting a reshuffle of the roster and coaching staff.
Now having returned to the top echelon of the women's game, Team China has set its sights on scaling new heights with the Paris 2024 Olympics on the horizon.
"We've achieved more than we'd expected coming into this tournament. The silver medal is a surprise, to be honest. But we won't stop here. We've already set new goals for the Paris Olympic Games," said Zheng, an assistant coach on the 2015 Asian Cup team.
"All this will pave the way for us to work harder with more confidence for a greater Olympic campaign in Paris."
With her players waving to the cheering crowd at the packed arena dotted by flying red flags and Chinese slogans, Zheng savored a real blast from the past on Saturday.
As a player on the silver-winning team at the 1994 world championship, Zheng said it was more fulfilling to guide a team to the podium at the tournament, which was rebranded as the World Cup in 2018.
"This comes with greater significance for me because I helped bring the whole group here this time rather than just an individual achievement for myself back in 1994," said Zheng, who was named best coach of the tournament.
Bolstered by the towering combo of Li Yueru and Han Xu in the paint, Team China's fast-paced style, combining a balanced offense and aggressive defense, was a real treat for purists of the game.
The team's per-game averages of 81.4 points, 23.9 assists and 50.0 percent field-goal shooting all ranked second among the 12 teams in Sydney behind the US.
Han was named on the tournament's All-Star Five lineup with an impressive average of 12.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in eight games to join American tandem Wilson and Breanna Stewart, the host's Steph Talbot and Canada's Bridget Carleton.
According to Chinese media reports, both Han and Li Yueru, who played for the New York Liberty and Chicago Sky respectively in the WNBA last season, are expected to continue their careers in the States. And they could well be joined in the US by teammates Li Meng, who was dubbed "LiBron Meng" for her all-around game, captain Yang Liwei and point guard Wang Siyu, after the trio attracted serious interest from franchises in the top American league.
With an average age of 25, the Chinese squad is ushering in an exciting era on the international stage should the national governing body continue to support its overseas adventure.
"This World Cup campaign ended up being a great confidence boost for all of us, consolidating what we are good at while exposing our weakness in handling high-intensity physical battles," said Han, a 2.07-meter center with exceptional agility and a soft shooting touch.
"I think our experience playing overseas has helped us adapt to the tough action, but we still have a lot of room for improvement which we are excited about."
NBA legend Pau Gasol, a FIBA ambassador for the women's World Cup, said he was won over by the Chinese squad.
"It's been fun to watch Team China," said Gasol, a two-time NBA championship winner with the Los Angeles Lakers and three-time Olympic medalist representing Spain.
"They've been playing really good basketball throughout the tournament. You can tell there is chemistry, there is belief and there is a good amount of talent."
Citing his own experience in the NBA, Gasol encouraged the Chinese girls to embrace more challenges in the WNBA.
"Playing with the best and against the best makes you a better player. And you bring that into your national team as well. Having two players in the WNBA definitely helps the Chinese national team and that has been proven in this championship," said the 42-year-old who retired last year.