Duco van Oostrum: It Was Anything But Easy - Hoopsfix.com

Duco van Oostrum: It Was Anything But Easy

Anyone checking the final score probably think this was an easy win. It wasn’t.

The start was pretty abysmal. Portugal scored, played with full emotion and GB played scared, committed turnovers, and except for Joe Hart’s only three, just couldn’t score or rebound.

First game jitters and they can be costly. Five minute in, down 10 (15-5) and I just remember last year’s U20s first game. All the expectations and then that first loss against Portugal that blew the entire tournament.

Please, not again, though the select crowd (a few parents made the trip – Australians and Scots). The good news was that it wasn’t getting any worse from there on, and GB did get frequent stops. It was the lack of production on the offensive end that had everyone worried; Connor hit a nice floated, but he was hampered by foul trouble. The turnovers kept coming (from easy out of bounds players – it was as if everything was new) but Portugal couldn’t really create easily either and after 1 it was 21-14. Believe me, it could have been worse but for decent effort on the defensive end.

Three consecutive scores from Devon got GB within 2 (21-23) but the team just could not get over the hump, and kept battling. Coach Smart kept rotating to find a scoring and defensive unit (I actually think I witnessed the quickest substitution ever after only 10 seconds). Rema got on the board with a nice lay-in, keeping the game close, but boy was it a struggle. Half-time almost came as a relief only down 4, 32-28.

Coach Smart had a long half-time talk, probably with some pointed remarks. It didn’t help. Jonah Callenbach (half Dutch), a teammate with the juniors of Dylan Johns in Spain, went on an individual scoring run, and it was 39-30 just two minutes in.

Once again Devon responded, but slowly the points started coming from different places; a big three by Josh, Jesse hits a jumper, and there’s finally more confidence in the team. Joe Hart then hits a classic three from the kick out after beautiful team basketball and it’s a 1-point game. Fernandez spoils it by hitting a three straight back, but the feel of the game is suddenly different as the fourth quarter stars, still down4, 49-45.

The fourth quarter starts with my ‘play of the game’. Devon misses a driving lay up (how he didn’t end up with more free throws is what everyone except the referees wonders), but John Stewart fights for the offensive rebound and gets the ‘and-one’ one point game again.

Ali steals the ball, then scores off the pick and roll – GB in the lead for the first time in the game, and they would not surrender it again. GB look impressive.

The Devon/Ali pick and roll starts working so well that Ali just keeps scoring; the court opens up and Joe Hart hits another three and Josh fires away as well. After all those struggles, a 31-point final quarter show’s GB’s potential. The character to fight through difficulties was immense, leaving a very different feeling than after last year’s opening game.

A quick run through the performances: Devon’s numbers jump out – 26 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds and 7 fouls drawn. He just kept going at the Portuguese, willing his teammates on. Ali recorded an almost customary double-double (he will be one of the leaders of the tournament in that category) of 16 points and 11 rebounds after his final quarter scoring outburst.

Joe Hart hit big shots in a difficult game. John Stewart hustled hard and gave his team a huge lift – especially the full court recovery after a turnover. The minutes clearly showed that this was a team effort, with all 10 guys logging 10+ minutes. Zac sat out with a minor head injury, and Lee re-injured his ankle and had to sit out as well.

Tomorrow it’s a big game against one of the favourites, Croatia. It’s going to be a fascinating tournament. As always, the scouting will start playing a role, since everyone preps so well now for specific opponents.

Sam asked about GB’s chances. I don’t know. The curious competition format of ‘carrying results’ to the next phase makes it hard to even lose one game in the group phase and still get promotion – we the ‘1990 GB U20’ know that only too well after beating Poland wasn’t enough to get them to the semis because of an earlier loss in the group phase to Austria.

It’s now the end of a very long day. It started Wednesday evening at 10.30pm on the National Express to Gatwick and a zillion hours later I was in time for GB’s first game. Later managed to find my lovely hotel near the Lion Bridge (see picture).

It’s hot here, but that is part of the Euros. I will try to do some actual exploring of Sofia tomorrow.