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Buyalski sizes up the competition at Nantes WOQT
MINSK (2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments) - It's been eight years since Belarus coach Anatoli Buyalski walked off the court in Madrid, Spain, with feelings of ecstasy and relief. He coached the team to an 86-79 victory over Brazil at the 2008 FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which clinched a spot in the Beijing Games.
I distinctly remember that magical moment when it was clear that we qualified for the Olympics in Beijing. It's unforgettable! - Buyalski
It was as if Belarus were on a magic carpet ride. They had come out of nowhere to win the third-place game against Latvia at the EuroBasket Women 2007 in Chieti, Italy. It was the country's first-ever participation in the event. It was their Semi-Final appearance in Chieti that sealed a place in the WOQT in Madrid.
Eight years on and Belarus, who almost made it to the 2010 FIBA Women's World Championship Final but lost to the Czech Republic after overtime in the Semi-Finals, are again trying to prove to the world they have the makings of a great team.
Yelena Leuchanka (BLR) nearly led Belarus into the 2010 FIBA Women's World Championship Final in Karlovy Vary, the Czech Republic
Their aim this summer will be to reach the 12-team tournament field at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. A fourth-place finish at the EuroBasket Women last year sealed a spot in the WOQT for Belarus. The event will be held in Nantes, France, 13-19 June.
Having participated in the (2008) WOQT, we can say that it is a great experience of course, however, the responsibility is now even greater than before as everyone seems to be expecting the highest result from us. Therefore, we will experience new extremes of pressure. - Buyalski
Heading off to an WOQT is like walking into a minefield. One wrong step could prove to be fatal. Buyalski has coached in enough international basketball tournaments to appreciate their unpredictable nature.
"Every single game of this tournament conceals a certain danger," he said to FIBA.com. "From year to year, the teams from all continents are getting stronger and stronger; moreover, there are no weak opponents initially. I would also highlight the system of the competition that will not forgive any mistakes."
Belarus did show a lot of power at times last year. They do have the makings of a wonderful side.
What are their chances of reaching the Olympics? Here is what Belarus will face in June. They were drawn in Group C of the WOQT with Korea and Nigeria and will play each of those sides in the opening round. If they finish in the top two, they will then take on one of the top two sides that comes out of a Group D that includes Spain, Venezuela and China.
Should they win that game, they will advance to the Olympics. Otherwise, they would have to win more two more games to reach Rio.
Both China and Spain have gotten the better of Belarus in recent times. At the 2014 FIBA Women's World Championship, Belarus, coached at the time by Rimantas Grigas, caught a terrible break when point guard Aliaksandra Tarasava got hurt in the opening game and was lost for the tournament.
The team nevertheless advanced to the Qualifications for the Quarter-Finals and appeared to be closing in on a spot in the last eight when they had a big lead against China. Belarus imploded in the fourth quarter. The Chinese ended up outscoring them 25-7 in the last frame and prevailed, 72-67.
Last year, Buyalski's side started the EuroBasket Women as if it was the best in the tournament but then suffered a major loss of form. Belarus still managed to reach the Semi-Finals and came within an eyelash of upsetting eventual champions Serbia. Spain ended up defeating them in the third-place game, just as they did at the 2010 FIBA Women's World Championship.
Buyalski can't put his finger on why Belarus have been so good at times and so bad at others the past couple of years.
"If only I knew the answer to his question we wouldn't be having this discussion now," he said. "Although there are some little things, but I'd rather keep it private."
If Buyalski could have his team avoid the big dips and show more consistency, he'd sleep better at night. Maybe the answer will be to bring some new players into the squad. It's an option that he does not dismiss.
"At the moment the doors are wide open for everyone and I certainly wish for the competition within the team to be the highest," Buyalski said.
Both China and Spain are sure to have many of those same players when they go up against Belarus. Buyalski's team also has a history with Korea. They beat the Fast East team at the Beijing Games, and then following a win over Brazil, Belarus lost to China in the Quarter-Finals.
The Korea team is totally different now compared to the year 2008, however, they managed to hold on to their style of the game. - Buyalski
The latter (Nigeria) is very uncomfortable for us in terms of constant player movements and outside shooting," Buyalski said.
So who would Buyalski like to face from Group D?
"It's absolutely useless to pick the right opponent right now," he said. "No matter which team it will be - it will be a top-two team. However, psychologically, it will of course be easier to play against team China or Venezuela, as Spain is traditionally an uneasy one for us."
Tatyana Troina (BLR) after Spain's win over Belarus at last year's EuroBasket Women
What is a certainty is that Buyalski, for all of the challenges that he faces as the coach of Belarus, loves what is in front of him and his players. Getting through the WOQT in Madrid has left him with very good memories.
It's very hard to compare the WOQT with anything else emotion wise because in a way, it's a super World Championship. And the result of that championship allows for the dream of any athlete and coach to come true. - Buyalski
Belarus are right now also involved in their FIBA EuroBasket Women 2017 qualifying campaign. They host Poland in Minsk on 24 February.