AUCKLAND (2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments) - The best way for New Zealand to get ready for what coach Kennedy Kereama has called a "cut-throat" FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament (WOQT) is to warm up against the toughest opponents they can find.
With that in mind, the country's basketball federation has put in place a challenging preparation program, one that should get the players battle-hardened for their WOQT clashes with hosts France on 14 June and thenCuba the following day.
Several of the national sides that the Kiwis are going to face - China,Belarus, Turkey and Spain - will be at the WOQT themselves and another, Japan, are already qualified for the Olympics. The Czech Republic,Montenegro and Latvia also have good teams.
Montenegro, in fact, are the only side with a worse FIBA World Ranking than New Zealand. They are No. 29 while the Tall Ferns are No. 22.
"Our build-up for the Olympic Qualifier is great," Kereama said. "We are playing a number of good teams ... We will be pushed during every game."
We need the best competition possible and the tougher the games, the better the preparation for our Olympic Qualification Series. The tournament is going to be cut-throat and we need to be playing our best basketball when we arrive in France. - Kereama
New Zealand have also revealed which players will compete for spots on the WOQT roster. Some would appear to be near certainties for selection, like Micaela Cocks, the veteran point guard who just led the Townsville Fire to the WNBL title. Cocks was named the MVP of the Grand Final and has been rewarded with a new contract
Another is Jillian Harmon, like Cocks a Townsville player and member of the Tall Ferns squad that played at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Harmon, however, has not played for the national team since the 2012 WOQT.
Antonia Edmondson is another of the trialists who played in the Grand Final, but for losing side, Perth. Edmondson most recently featured for the national team in 2013 when she averaged 22 points per game at the FIBA Oceania Women's Championship against Australia.
Another player who may prove crucial for the Tall Ferns is Kalani Purcell, who is coming off a terrific season in American college basketball with Brigham Young.
Kereama is excited. He led the team at the WOQT in 2012 and endured the disappointment of not reaching the London Games. He and his players are going to be hungry.
"We have a good group of players that have made themselves available this year, many of whom have just come off great professional or collegiate seasons," Kereama said.
The depth in our women’s program is at an all-time high and we have a lot of players knocking on the door and forcing themselves into the selection conversation. - Kereama
Four players not selected or unavailable are Natalie Taylor, Megan Craig,Tessa Boagni (all three were in last year's FIBA Oceania Women's Championship squad) and Jacinta Beckley.
At the trials, Kereama will choose 14 players to remain at a preparation camp in Auckland (9-11 May). The squad will then travel to China and play at a Four Nations Tournament that also includes the Czech Republic, Montenegro and the Chinese.
New Zealand will have friendlies 23-28 May against Latvia in Riga. Next will be a Four Nations Tournament with Belarus, Japan and Turkey in Minsk from 29 May to 4 June, followed by friendlies against Spain 5-9 June in Asturias. The team will then travel to Nantes for the WOQT.
New Zealand trialists: Stella Beck, Brooke Blair, Jessica Bygate, Micaela Cocks, Shea Crotty, Penina Davidson, Antonia Edmondson, Deena Franklin, Samara Gallaher, Jillian Harmon, Jordan Hunter, Breana Jones, Krystal Leger-Walker, Hailey Moala Katelin Noyer, Chevannah Paalvast, Kalani Purcell, Erin Rooney, Terai Sadler, Josephine Stockill, Dru Toleafoa, Jessica Tuki and Lisa Wallbutton.
photos Janos Schmidt