BASKETBALL: England lapse after reaching target

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England's European Championship challenge peaked on Saturday night, when victory over Denmark secured their place in the semi-final round, then subsided with an 88-71 defeat against Poland in the final game of the qualifying round at Birmingham's NEC yesterday.

Three successive misses when they trailed 67-55 cost England the chance to cut unbeaten Poland's lead to single figures, and they failed to score for another five minutes as they slumped to their first defeat and had to settle for second place.

Nevertheless, England's coach, Laszlo Nemeth, proved himself an astute man-manager throughout the six-nation, five-day event from which Georgia join Poland and England in the next stage, beginning in October.

Assessing that England would be strong enough to qualify with only one specialist point guard in the 12-man team, he ditched Karl Brown the night before the tournament for a disciplinary breach.

On Saturday, with games to come against the two biggest teams, Nemeth allowed John Amaechi, 6ft 10in, to return to the States because the player was so depressed by his performances.

Brown, the 6ft 4in London Leopards play maker, continued to train with the team each day and sat on the bench during the games. "The coach wanted everyone to focus on the job. He didn't want any distractions and I accept that," Brown said.

His absence put extra pressure on the only specialist point guard left, his fellow Leopard Ronnie Baker, and Thames Valley's Steve Bucknall, who was pressed into the role. Both were inspirational in the second-half of Saturday's 88-70 win over Denmark for a team psyched up by an interval pep talk from Jim Brandon, the Sheffield Sharks' coach.

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP Qualifying round (NEC Arena, Birmingham): Saturday: Poland 122 Luxembourg 76; Georgia 101 Wales 73; England 88 Denmark 70. Yesterday: Poland 88 England 71; Georgia 81, Luxembourg 64, Denmark 105, Wales 57. Final positions (2pts for a win, 1pt for a defeat): Poland 10, England 9, Georgia 8, Denmark 7, Luxembourg 6, Wales 5.