The Ružomberok women's team is the backbone of the national squad.
As hard as Kotočová played, and as much as Bieliková relished the victory, the pair now have their eyes on a common, higher prize - they will be team-mates and go-to players when the Slovak women's basketball team competes in the September Olympics in Sydney. Their appearance will mark the first time Slovak basketball has ever been represented at the games.
But while winning the gold would seem to be long shot, players and those surrounding the team have seen enough success in international competition to know that the Slovak ladies can play with anyone. "It all depends on us," said Bieliková, captain of the Ružomberok squad, Slovakia's most successful sports franchise ever and two-time defending European champions. "We can definitely surprise people. When we are in good form there's nobody we can't beat."
Since the country's split with the Czech Republic, the women's basketball team has been the paragon of Slovak sports. In 1993, the newly-formed squad burst onto the international scene in Italy where they placed third, thereby qualifying for the world championships the following year in Australia. There, the upstarts defeated eventual winners Brazil in the opening round-robin play.
In 1995, the ladies narrowly missed an Olympic birth to the 1996 Atlanta games, placing fourth in the European championships, one position away from gaining a berth under the old system. Their international success rebounded, however, in 1997 when the team made it to the European finals in Hungary where they lost 62 - 72 to Latvia. Last May in Poland, Slovakia earned one of 16 spots in the 2000 Olympics by placing fourth in the European championships behind Russia, France, and Poland.
"We are very proud to represent Slovak basketball for the first time in the Olympics," said head coach Natália Hejková, also Ružomberok's head coach. "It is our desire to win a medal, although we know that this an extremely ambitious goal."
The team will be propelled toward that goal by a solid mixture of experience and youth. While five of the team's players are 21 or younger, all of them have enjoyed a healthy diet of international tournaments and exhibition trips. In addition, seven of the national team's players also play for Ružomberok, a team accustomed to high-pressure situations. Three of the older players were on the Czechoslovak Olympic team in Barcelona in 1992, which placed sixth out of eight teams.
"It was a remarkable time in my life," said the 33 year-old Bieliková while recounting her experiences in Spain. "It was the first time I'd ever played in such a gigantic arena. Since then I've played in many big places, as have the other players, so nerves shouldn't be a problem. We know what to expect - the best players in the world will be there, which is a big motivation."
When asked to assess the team's strengths, Hejková said they relied heavily on tough 'woman-to-woman' defence. "We like to pressure a lot and keep the tempo fast-paced," she said. In January the American national team, widely regarded as the best in the world, got a taste of this aggressive style of play as they had to struggle to beat the scrappy Slovak side by just three points.
On the other hand, Hejková admitted that her team's offence could be better. "Right now it's definitely our weakness," she said. "We don't attack quickly enough."
Another potential problem for Slovakia could be injuries. Kotočová, the team's captain, is currently nursing pains in her knee and back at a Slovak spa. Though expected to play, her health will remain a concern. Zuzana Kameníková, a forward who plays professionally in the Czech Republic, is also questionable with a knee injury.
After finishing their professional seasons in April, players from the national team flew to Croatia on May 18 to work on conditioning for two weeks. In early June, the women participated in a series of games in Australia where they won a disappointing six out of eight.
When asked who the favourites were to bring home the gold, Coach Hejková picked Australia, followed by the United States and Russia as close seconds, and France, Brazil, and her team as the dark horses. "Playing in the Olympics is the highest goal for every athlete in every sport," she said. "We will be doing everything we can to bring home a medal."
3. Jul 2000 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds