Xu Limin (left). [Photo/Xinhua]

Facing an uphill battle in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic women’s basketball tournament, the Chinese national team is endeavoring to raise its game “to a new level” despite the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

China will face Australia, Puerto Rico and Belgium in the group phase of the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer.

“We cannot control some external factors such as the pandemic and opponents, but we can spare no efforts in trying to raise our game to a new level and striving for better results,” China head coach Xu Limin told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.

China won all three of its Olympic qualifying games in Belgrade in February last year, providing the nation with a timely morale boost amid its epidemic fight.

But the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics until 2021 has produced uncertainties.

Without international matches for nearly a year, China, like most teams, has found it difficult to keep tabs on opponents.

Xu admitted that it will take time for national players to fully switch their focus to their international duties, as they have just finished their league campaign and will play qualifiers for China’s 14th National Games.

“The pandemic has prevented us from using the usual methods to warm up for major tournaments,” Xu said.

World No 2 Australia, the runner-up at the 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup, boasts 2.03-meter-tall center Elizabeth Cambage and experienced guard Rebecca Allen among its ranks.

China edged Australia at the 2019 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup-but the Aussies were without the services of Cambage that day.

Emma Meesseman is expected spearhead Belgium’s challenge. The power forward was named on the All-Star Five team at the 2018 World Cup as the Belgians reached the semifinals.

A year later, Meesseman won the WNBA championship with the Washington Mystics and was named Finals MVP.

China and Belgium have shared the spoils in their recent matchups, with Xu rating the Belgians as his team’s main rival in the fight for second spot in the group.

China has had few encounters in recent years with Puerto Rico, which is regarded as something of an unknown quantity.

“There is no minnow in the group, and nothing is impossible on the Olympic stage,” said Xu.

Another uncertainty is the new competition format which has dispensed with the usual two groups of six teams.

Instead, the 12 teams have been split into three groups of four, with the top two sides from each pool and the two best third-place finishers progressing to the knockout phase.

“It requires us to fight from the very first game and try to garner as many points as we can,” Xu said.

“We have envisaged huge pressure and difficulties as many of our players are Olympic debutants.

“We, as always, will display a strong mentality and try to live up to expectations. What really matters is playing for ourselves.”

Xinhua