Sports Journalism Blog

By Frank Bonner II | @Frank_Bonner2

Sports Capital Journalism Program

TENERIFE, Spain — Latvia fans did their part in welcoming their national team to its first FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup by temporarily turning the Palacio Municipal de Deportes into a home court on Saturday.

The Latvia faithful, approximately 4,500 kilometers from home, entered the gym decked out in jerseys and T-shirts and with the country’s flag in hand. Some of the fans began shouting as soon as they got off the bus outside the gym. Several of them were beating on drums throughout the early afternoon in support of this historic venture. Latvia faced a seasoned China basketball program that already has a silver and bronze medal in its previous eight World Cup appearances, but Latvia never backed down.

The enthusiastic fan support was almost enough to help Latvia upset the No. 8 team in the FIBA rankings. China managed to survive with a 64-61 victory in Group D, but Latvia put the world on notice that it isn’t afraid to compete. Syracuse University sophomore Digna Strautmane, who is currently taking classes online, is grateful for the chance to represent her county with its first World Cup team.

“I’m glad I got this opportunity to be here,” Strautmane said. “I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to do my best each game. Maybe this was not the best outcome of the game, but we were still fighting really hard.”

It took a little time for Latvia to loosen up which caused it to shoot just 21 percent from the field in the first quarter. The fan base never wavered though, and Latvia cut the 17-10 China lead to 31-30 by halftime. Players found their shooting rhythm in the second quarter and knocked down 47 percent of their shots.

China brought three players who are 6-foot-6 or taller, including 6-9 center Han Xu, but Latvia’s scrappiness allowed it to outrebound China by 10 and grab 22 offensive boards.

The Latvia fans showed their pride with every basket and erupted when Latvia took its first lead on two Elina Dikaioulaku free throws in the first 30 seconds of the second half.

“This is great, the emotions and everybody supporting,” Strautmane said. “Of course we should win, but I’m glad everybody is supporting us. I hope we don’t disappoint them and keep working hard.”

Latvia held its biggest lead of four points during the third quarter and had a 46-44 lead early in the fourth.

China took a 56-55 lead with just under three minutes remaining and Latvia kept battling to stay within reach. China led 61-62 with 25 seconds to play when Latvia had a chance for a potential game winning basket. It held the ball while looking for a shot until the University of South Florida senior Kitija Laksa had to force up a low percentage shot that missed off the rim. China rebounded and Liwei Yang made two free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining to take a 64-61 lead.

Latvia turned the ball over on the inbound pass to end the game. Strautmane said the start to the second game should be more comfortable after Latvia was able to experience World Cup play for the first time. Latvia will face Senegal, which lost to the United States, 87-67, at 9 a.m. EDT on Sunday. For the loser of that game, a 0-2 start would make it difficult to reach a quarterfinal play-in game.

“We know what to expect,” Strautmane said. “We know how the referees work. Of course the game doesn’t change that much, but we have to adjust for it. Every tournament is a little bit different and every game is a little bit different.”