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MADRID (FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Women) – Spain rode the hot hand of Elisa Aguilar into the Beijing Games on Friday.
The veteran point guard erupted for 17 of her game-high 28 points in the second half to fire Spain past an impressive Cuba 82-68 in the first quarter-final at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Evaristo Perez’s team, which played so hard against Russia in the gold medal game of the EuroBasket Women but missed out on that title, booked a trip to the Olympics for a second time in a row.
They made it to the quarter-finals in Athens four years ago before losing to Brazil.
The win means players like Isa Sanchez and Anna Montanana will play at the Olympics for the first time.
“Last year I had the opportunity to play and today I am just so proud to have these colours on my chest,” said Sanchez.
“This has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl, to go to the Olympic Games.”
“It’s my first Olympics, and it’s fulfilled one of my biggest wishes,” said Montanana, one of Spain’s leading players last summer in Chieti.
Alberto Zabala, the Cuba coach, had his team ready to play after beating Belarus to first place in Group D with the defense causing Spain all sorts of problems in the first half.
The tournament hosts did threaten to open up a comfortable lead late when Aguilar buried one of her six three-pointers (she was six of 10 from long range) in the contest for a 37-30 advantage.
Clenia Noblet made a pair of free throws and the outstanding Yakelyn Plutin then drilled a three-ball to close the gap to just two with 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Laia Palau’s two free throws gave Spain a 39-35 advantage at the break.
Spain took control of proceedings immediately after the restart, with an Amaya Valdemoro jump shot and Anna Montanana lay-up opening an eight-point lead.
The closest Cuba would get the rest of the way was 52-46 after a Yulizeny three-pointer.
“We knew that if we could keep our level for 40 minutes, it would be impossible for them to beat us,” Aguilar said.
Cindy Lima was overcome with emotion before the final whistle when she realized she was headed to Beijing.
“It was difficult to sleep last night,” she said.
“Ahead of an important game like this today, when I could see that we were going to win, I started to cry.”
Cuba still have a chance to reach Beijing, but they will now have beat one of the other quarter-final losers on Saturday and then win against another on Sunday.