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Wauters thrilled by Belgium’s return
PRAGUE (FIBA EuroBasket Women 2017) - It's been 10 years since Ann Wauters led FIBA EuroBasket Women in scoring, and 10 years since Belgium's last game in The Final Round. Now they want to make up for lost time.
Despite a brilliant career that has taken her all around the world, through titles in EuroLeague Women and WNBA, Ann Wauters has plotted a lonely course on the international stage with Belgium.
But now Belgium are back, with one of the continent's hottest young stars alongside Wauters in the form of Emma Meesseman. It means that Belgium's return is not only about ranking among the top 16 teams on the continent - there is also an eye on a historic first-ever qualification to the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup.
We are young and enthusiastic - except me! I mean, I'm not young, but I'm still enthusiastic!
Wauters and livewire playmaker Marjorie Carpreaux are the only survivors from the squad at EuroBasket Women 2007, where Wauters recalls that global qualification was also on the agenda: "That was our goal, to go for an Olympic ticket to Beijing. We were close - we lost a Second Round game to Latvia in the final seconds, which could have changed our course. It was disappointing at the time because we were so close, but at the same time, we were far away really."
Carpreaux was influential in the team's opening victory, a tense encounter with Montenegro where the Belgian team established an early lead and survived a late flurry, with Carpreaux helping to deny Milica Jovanovic in the final seconds.
"Marjo's our emotional leader, but she stays cool in the crucial moments and that was one of them, so that was really critical for us. She handled it pretty well," Wauters explained.
Then Wauters rolled back the years in the Belgian Cats' thrilling overtime victory over Russia, racking up 20 points, including the game-winner.
Coach Philip Mestdagh is thankful to have Wauters' experience in a young group: "Her influence, her role on the team - it's so big, you cannot imagine. You can see it, when they come on to the court after a timeout, she'll bring them together for an extra huddle, emphasizing the details."
We haven't won anything - we're a step closer to our goal, but our goal was to get to Quarter-Finals and we’re still not there
Mestdagh is quick to underline that her role extends beyond basketball: "She is a great player, but an even better human - because she's so normal! She's won everything, WNBA, EuroLeague Women, best player in Europe - but you can talk to her easily, have a coffee, she's still cool. She's an amazing person."
The veteran Wauters joked that one of the team's strengths is that "we are young and enthusiastic - except me! I mean, I'm not young, but I'm still enthusiastic!"
With 10 players stepping out at FIBA EuroBasket Women for the first time, Wauters has been keen to share her experience with the group: "Of course, it's going to be different when the spotlights are on - every team wants to compete here, nobody comes just to play a game. In these games you learn so much. For them it's an unbelievable experience to have, and it helps you to improve as a player - I think that's the main thing. Our goal is to try and grow a little bit in this tournament."
Wauters' enthusiasm extends to the state of the game throughout the continent, fully aware that her team will face a battle to even reach the Quarter-Finals: "Our goal is to get out of the group first. Both our games so far went to the last second - two times it went in our favor, but it could have been not in our favor. I'm pretty sure there will be many more close games. It's good that the level of every country is going up, and there's less big gaps."
"But we haven't won anything - we're a step closer to our goal, but our goal was to get to Quarter-Finals and we’re still not there," explained Wauters after the victory over Russia. "We have a huge opportunity in front of us, but if we lose to Latvia, we can still go home on Wednesday."
Leading Belgium to the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup for the first time in their history would be a fairytale way to cap Wauters' wonderful career - but there’s still a long way to go.