The year of the 'Dragon Ladies': Bosnia and Herzegovina ready to breathe more fire
SARAJEVO (Bosnia and Herzegovina) – If you're looking for a 2021 Team of the Year candidate, then Bosnia and Herzegovina are a frontrunner, while you can consider them a lock in any 'basketball fairytale' category.
The 'Dragon Ladies' have delivered a stunning rise to prominence, racking up an array of historical highs and, perhaps most importantly, laying the foundation for an exciting future.
Landing at the FIBA Women's EuroBasket in the summer of 2021 for the first time since their debut in 1997, they made a serious splash. They lit it up in Strasbourg to move out of the Group Phase, collecting a spectacular opening day win against title-chasing Belgium and then immediately followed up by beating another top 10 world-ranked nation in Turkey.
"WE LEFT AS OUTSIDERS AND RETURNED AS HEROES OF THE NATION." - Goran Lojo
Their exploits captured the imagination of an amazing and passionate fanbase that has embraced the team and showed much love for the coaching staff and players. This outpouring of affection and appreciation was perhaps heightened by the long wait of more than two decades to see Bosnia and Herzegovina punching at the highest level again.
You could say that such a long wait was almost worth it.
Bosnia and Herzegovina took their show to Valencia for the latter stages of the competition, secured a fifth-place finish - their highest ever - and, in the process, booked a ticket to the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2022 Qualifying Tournaments.
"THE 'MOTHER OF DRAGONS' JONQUEL JONES WAS A REAL LEADER AND SHOWED US WE CAN COMPETE AT THIS LEVEL." - Nikolina Babic
Heading into 2022, more history sits tantalizingly on the horizon. Even more so after they also tipped off their FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2023 Qualifying campaign, in November, with another big win against Belgium.
Any cynics who raise an eyebrow at their efforts due to having Jonquel Jones as a naturalized tour de force and headline-maker should probably consider the sub-plot. As brilliant and as jaw-dropping as the WNBA MVP is, the success of the supporting cast around her has been a success story running in perfect parallel.
"THIS IS THE RESULT OF MANY YEARS OF TEAMWORK AND COMMITMENT. IT MEANS A LOT FOR A 'SMALL COUNTRY' WITH A BIG HEART." - Goran Lojo
Yes, while the re-awakening of women’s basketball for this nation may have been largely in the hands of their marquee star, it would surely have not succeeded if it was not also for homegrown ballers standing up tall and also delivering alongside Jones.
Players like Nikolina Babic for example, whose impressive efforts at the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket saw her harvest a near 14 points and 4 assists per game.
"2021 was very special, starting from the very beginning when we qualified for the FIBA Women's EuroBasket back in February after a 22-year wait; from that moment, our little fairytale started," Babic said with a smile.
"In the preparations for the Women's EuroBasket, the team had great energy, which gave indications that we would be able to achieve good results - and it was to be just like that.
"We arrived in Strasbourg as total outsiders and it gave us motivation to prove that our place is at the very top of European basketball.
"After the first game when we defeated one of the main favorites Belgium, we were convinced of our own strength and that we were on the right track.
"Besides our good play, spectators also had the opportunity to see our pure emotions, the way we fight on the court and just how much of a big heart the team has. It is what carried us through every game.
"I must also mention our best player, the 'Mother of the Dragons' Jonquel Jones, who was a real leader on the court and showed us that we can compete at this level. She is the missing part of our puzzle that we had been looking for all these years.
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Babic continued: "In the end, we took a respectable fifth place and can remove the tag of outsiders and let the world know that our time is coming.
"When I look back on 2021, I can say that I am very very proud of my team and all that we have done. This team have a special energy on the court, we look at each other as a family and give maximum support on and off the court.
"We're emerging from 2021 as much better players and with more experience. Our head coach Goran Lojo has done a great job giving us an opportunity to show ourselves that we can do big things and we are now looking forward to new challenges."
The praise for Lojo is well aimed. He has had to work hard with his staff to secure vital synergy between a dominant figure like Jones and all other members of the team so that they also contribute positively.
It's also the case that if you dip below the 2021 wave of euphoria everyone is joyfully riding right now you realize this re-emergence actually started several years ago. In fact, they were only just pipped in their quest to make it to the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket 2019.
"I agree that 2021 can be characterized as the renaissance year of Bosnia and Herzegovina basketball," declared Lojo.
"We left as outsiders and returned as heroes of the nation. We achieved the greatest success ever of the Bosnia and Herzegovina team sport in a big competition. Certainly, this success is the result of many years of teamwork and commitment. This really means a lot for our 'small country' with a big heart.
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"The doors of big clubs are also now opening to our players, which is certainly important for the future of the team. What is perhaps most important of all, is that our results have encouraged a large number of girls to start coaching basketball in the country. This means we can now create a larger base for the development of domestic clubs and youth national teams."
The coach added: "Meanwhile for me on a personal level, this was the most successful year and a great career advancement. I am really proud of the result achieved and am ready for new challenges - both at the national and club level.
"I am now ready for 2022, when for the first time in our history, we will have the opportunity to participate at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup. We will do everything possible to reach Australia and to make the nation happy again," concluded Lojo.
Bosnia and Herzegovina will compete in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2022 Qualifying Tournament in Osaka where they will face Belarus, Canada and Japan.