2degrees Tall Fern Head Coach, Guy Molloy has today locked in his squad for next month’s FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Xi’an, China.
The squad includes: Stella Beck (captain), McKenna Dale, Tayla Dalton, Lauryn Hippolite, Charlisse Leger-Walker, Esra McGoldrick, Tera Reed, Zoe Richards, Sharne Robati, Ritorya Tamilo, Amy West and Lauren Whittaker.
Coach Molloy has also named his assistant coaches as Jody Cameron, Leanne Walker and Mel Downer. In addition, Eva Langton will also travel with the Tall Ferns squad to China as a training player.
The FIBA Olympic Qualifier in Xi’an, China is one of four global FIBA Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournaments taking place from 8-12 February, with 16 teams fighting for 12 tickets to the Paris Olympics in July. Two of the participating teams have already locked in their Olympic spots; hosts France and USA as the winner of the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup.
For the Xi’an edition of the tournament, the 2degrees Tall Ferns have been grouped in Pool A alongside China, France and Puerto Rico. New Zealand comes into this event without a trio of key players from last year’s FIBA Asia Cup squad; Penina Davidson and Tahlia Tupaea ruled out due to injury, while Krystal Leger-Walker is out for personal reasons.
Coach Molloy says that while the Tall Ferns will be impacted by the unavailability of these athletes, there are proven veterans in the squad who can make New Zealand a dangerous opponent in Xi’an.
“I’m disappointed for Penina as she’s been such a valuable contributor to the Tall Ferns for a long period of time, so to get to this pinnacle level event and she’s unavailable due to injury – it’s just horrible bad luck and I feel for her,” says Molloy.
“Because so much of how our team plays over the past five years has centred around Penina as a pivotal figure, we’ll need to find other ways to make it work – that’s our challenge and I’ll be expecting this squad to step up in true New Zealand fashion. It’s not about our squad being 100% better, it’s about all 12 players each finding a way to be 3-4% better, and us finding new and resourceful ways to make up for her absence.
“We have significant experience in our squad; players like Stella [Beck] and Charlisse [Leger-Walker] who have both been a pivotal part of our programme. And we’ve got athletes who are getting a good taste of the WNBL [in Australia] right now, such as Tera [Reed] at the Boomers and Esra [McGoldrick] with the Bendigo Spirit. These players were all very important for us at Asia Cup last year and they’ll play major roles for our team in China.”
Coach Molloy believes the silver lining to the unavailability of Penina, Tahlia and Krystal is that it paves the way for several young, talented players to step onto the roster and contribute.
“Amy [West] is one of three of young but talented post players; both her and Tori [Tamilo] are 6’4” and Lauren brings her own brand of inside presence. These athletes all have the ability to be long-term Tall Ferns, yes they’re get thrown into the fire a bit quicker than planned – but it’s a huge opportunity for them to show what they can do. They’re the future for us.
“The other significant injury is Tahlia [Tupaea] who is out with her shoulder; we’d hoped to have Kalani [Purcell] available but she’s not quite ready yet. So we’ll bring in two young players in McKenna [Dale] and Sharne [Robati] who are both versatile, have good international size and can shoot the ball. They can offer us different strengths on the floor.”
Stella Beck knows that as Tall Ferns captain, she’ll be looked upon to lead by example at an even higher level, given the unavailability of her long-time teammate Penina.
“I have shared almost every Tall Ferns experience of my own with Penina, and it’s huge shoes to fill in my opinion; not just on the court but off the court,” says Beck.
“What Penina brings is invaluable, you can’t put a price on that girl and I’m really sad she won’t be here for this tour. She deserves to be here and was an extremely important part of getting us to this [Olympic Qualification] tournament in the first place.
“But it opens up the door for these younger players to come in and show what they’ve got. If you look further into the future then it’s not going to do any harm to give these young girls coming up more experience – the more games of this calibre they’re exposed to at a young age, the more beneficial it is to their development.”
Coach Molloy is proud of the Tall Ferns for making it this far in their Olympic journey, which he says has proved more difficult for New Zealand than in the past – due to FIBA’s new zone qualification process. He is going into Xi’an with the goal of earning a coveted ticket to Paris in July; what would be the Tall Ferns first Olympics berth since 2008.
“Since FIBA changed the qualification process and placed New Zealand in the Asia Zone, we can’t qualify directly from Oceania like in the past. We know how difficult it is to get out of the Asia Zone and onto the next step of Olympic qualification, given four teams in this zone are ranked in the Top 12 in the world – China (ranked #2), Australia (#3), Japan (#9) and Korea at twelfth.
“This is the farthest we’ve gone since this change was made, so I’m incredibly proud of the team to go from being ranked at 29th in the world in 2023, then knocking out Korea in the Asia Cup to make it to this stage of qualification [which also bumped NZ’s world ranking up to 23]. Those numbers are strong indicators of really solid progress in our programme, and I’m proud of our players, coaches and staff for getting this far – it’s a huge thing to make it to this tournament.
“We know it’s not going to be easy in Xi’an; China is ranked the second-best team in the world, Puerto Rico is now 12th and France is seventh. We’ll go in with the goal to win at least one game; of course other tournament results will factor into it too, so we’ll need to be strategic and look at where we can match up best – it could all come down to one really good performance for our squad to make it through.
“In tournaments like this, anything can happen; we’ll look at very different game plans for each game, and we know that at the same time these teams are looking at us and are saying ‘we just have to beat NZ to advance’ so there’ll be a lot of focus on us at the tournament too.”
The Tall Ferns will face China, France and Puerto Rico in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Xi’an, China from 8-11 February – with a ticket to 2024 Paris Olympics at stake. Watch all games live at TVNZ+ or follow online at www.fiba.basketball/oqtwomen/china/2024
Keep up to date with the 2degrees Tall Ferns at https://nz.basketball/national-teams/tall-ferns/
2degrees Tall Ferns Squad, 2024 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (Xi’an, China)
Stella Beck, Tokomanawa Queens
McKenna Dale, Bendigo Spirit / Whai
Tayla Dalton, Saint Mary’s Gaels (NCAA)
Lauryn Hippolite, Mainland Pouākai
Charlisse Leger-Walker, Washington State University Cougars (NCAA)
Esra McGoldrick, Bendigo Spirit / Mainland Pouākai
Tera Reed, Melbourne Boomers / Northern Kāhu
Zoe Richards, Southern Hoiho
Sharne Robati, Mainland Pouākai
Ritorya Tamilo, Bendigo Spirit / Northern Kāhu
Amy West, Oaklands Wolves / Whai
Lauren Whittaker, Mainland Pouākai
Head Coach – Guy Molloy
Assistant Coach – Jody Cameron
Assistant Coach – Leanne Walker
Assistant Coach – Mel Downer