- National Teams
The wait is almost over as London Lions finally take to the floor for their European debut as they host Spain’s Gran Canaria at Crystal Palace this evening.
Mark Clark’s side are 80 minutes away from a historic spot in the regular season with the reverse leg taking place next Thursday.
The Lions have assembled a deep and talented roster for their venture into Europe including former EuroCup winner Jo Leedham-Warner and fellow GB Olympian Azania Stewart.
This is the biggest occasion in the women’s game for quite some time and head coach Clark has admitted it has come a year earlier than planned. It’s the ultimate test for a first game of the season and Lions have had to deal with injuries and absences for various reasons to limit their preparation, which included a two-game series against EuroLeague opposition Basket Landes, in France – missing seven senior players.
Shanice Beckford-Norton recently represented GB at the 3×3 Europe Cup; Stewart and Leah McDerment have both dealt with injuries, while Leedham-Warner is being carefully managed upon 18 months out of the game.
Cassie Breen only arrived last week and went straight into a friendly action against Nottingham with fellow American Steph Umeh joining earlier this week so the Lions will be hoping their key American duo can quickly get up to speed and pick up from where they left off last season.
Maya Caldwell looks to be one of the main threats for Gran Canaria with the free-scoring rookie out of Georgia taken in the third round in the 2021 WNBA Draft. The onus could well be on lockdown defender Shanice Beckford-Norton to match up with the American guard and that could prove to be a key battle.
Mali teenage sensation Sika Kone is currently on international duty with 20-year Slovene Elma Dautovic and talented 16-year-old Spaniard Carla Brito on the roster alongside a lot of experience including Belgian international Hanne Mestdagh. There is also size inside with rookie Lydia Giomi, who graduated from Oregon – playing alongside Holly Winterburn.
The Lions are the first British team to compete in EuroCup Women action since the 2007-08 season when Rhondda Rebels participated in their third consecutive European campaign. The Welsh side won just one of 18 regular season games, though they did beat Portuguese side Boa Viagem in both legs of the qualifiers in their final campaign.
Talent runs all the way through the roster and if it can click, then this team will be really special. Kennedy Leonard was the Basketball Journalists Association Player of the Year last season and forms an exciting back-court partnership with Winterburn, who was also in the running for an MVP award and still doesn’t turn 21 until October.
Breen is an elite shooter, Umeh such an understated performer with Beckford-Norton and Chantel Charles relishing their battles on the defensive end. Paige Robinson is continuing to hone her craft under the guidance of Stewart and the sheer presence of Leedham-Warner – a former EuroCup winner – can only be a huge boost to the team.
“It’s massive, it’s so huge,” said Leedham-Warner. “I think people don’t really understand the magnitude of having a team back in Euro Cup – it’s a step in the right direction and the push that we need for the women’s game and for British basketball.”
It’s a big task, but one the Lions are determined to come through. Let the history commence.