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New Zealand players face Sunday quandary

2 on team hold fast in their resolve to sit out Sabbath games

BEIJING — The New Zealand women's basketball team wrapped up its Beijing Olympics participation Sunday against the gold-medal favorite United States.

But for New Zealand "Tall Ferns" players — Charmian Purcell and Nonila Wharemate — competition came to an end with Friday's 90-59 loss to the Czech Republic, because the two members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are keeping commitments to not play on Sundays.

For the pair, it was "Games over."

At least the two made it to Beijing, because their no-Sunday-play stance at one point jeopardized their chances to even make the Olympic team.

New Zealand head coach Mike McHugh was understandably hesitant to put two players on his 12-member roster whom he knew would both be unavailable for the same game.

"But we've stuck with our guns and come to the Olympics, the main event, and he decided that he'd take both of us," Purcell said.

Her sister, Natalie Purcell, who is also LDS and on the New Zealand Olympic team, played in Sunday's finale, a 96-60 U.S. win.

Almost 20 LDS Olympian athletes are competing in the Beijing Summer Games. A number face a Sunday preliminary or perhaps a final with medals riding on the outcome. For some, their only Olympic opportunity is slated for a Sunday.

It's a common conflict shared repeatedly by LDS college and professional athletes throughout the world.

Natalie Purcell made her decision to play basketball on Sundays when she was recruited by Southeast Missouri State.

"I played all through college in the States on Sundays," she said, adding "this is pretty much my follow-on from college, coming to the Olympics and playing for the Tall Ferns."

And she's certain McHugh wouldn't have taken a trio of no-Sunday players, "but that wasn't my deciding factor," she said.

Wharemate, who played collegiately at Texas-El Paso, told prospective recruiters from the start of her commitment to not play, practice or train on Sundays.

"I sort of made that a criteria from the beginning, right from the recruiting process," she said. "It weeded out a lot of schools."

And when UTEP coaches were facing important Sunday games, they still asked Wharemate about the possibilities of playing, but they kept their promises when she politely declined.

Unlike her sister, Charmian Purcell didn't play collegiate basketball in the U.S. and wasn't faced with the Sunday conflicts until joining the national team. That's when it became a challenge, with coaches and officials asking both her and Wharemate to reconsider.

"We still stuck with our guns — no, we're not going to play on Sundays," she said. "Sometimes he decided he'd just take one of us (to previous tournaments). We haven't both been able to go on every tour."

Wharemate said the uncertainty made for worrisome, sleepless nights.

"You both want to go, and you don't want to affect each other's chances of making the team," she said. "You think that if maybe you fold and you play on Sunday, they'll pick the both of you.... You don't want to be responsible for somebody else not making the team."

In the end, both Wharemate and Charmian Purcell were selected, joining Natalie Purcell for a memorable Beijing Olympics experiences — testing their skills against the world's best players and visiting with elite peers from other countries in the Athletes Village.

And Natalie Purcell had a chance to square off against the Americans on Sunday.

"We come from a really small country, and they're the best in the world, and (we played) against WNBA players," she said, "so for a lot of us girls, it's a really cool experience to play against them."

The New Zealand team missed the opening ceremonies because of its early game the next morning, so the Tall Ferns will be sticking around through the end of the Games, eager to participate in the closing ceremonies.

And what about Wharemate and Charmian Purcell, who were fully planning to march until they learned after Friday's loss that the Beijing Olympics' grand finale at National Stadium is scheduled for Aug. 24 — a Sunday night?

"Oh, probably not then," Wharemate said.

Added Charmian Purcell: "We didn't even know."