During the 2016 Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament in France, our women’s national basketball teams – DTigress – celebrated their victory over Korea by singing and dancing in the locker room. It was a do or die game and Ezinne Kalu’s deep 3 point shot gave Nigeria the much needed win. The game ended 70 – 69. But that single victory wasn’t enough as Korea defeated Belarus in the last group game and dashed our hope of participating the Women’s Basketball competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
In his post on Facebook, basketball veteran Patrick Omo-Osagie criticize the team for rejoicing too early. He mentioned that although the win was a good one, it was not worthy of the dance.
“We danced too soon”.
However, he made a revelation;
“Our ladies might have danced too early for Rio but they will dance a lot come next year when they win the Afrobasket. This team is good enough to win back to back African championship, 2017 and 2019. Keep the technical adviser and the core of the team and we will be dancing soon”
And he was right. Fast forward to Mali, our ladies won the 2017 FIBA Women’s Afrobasket Tournament and boy, did they dance!
In preparation for the continental tournament, two parallel camps were held – one in the United States of America for the US-based players and one in Lagos for the top players selected from the Zenith Bank Women’s Basketball League. The two camps merged in Lagos where the final twelve players were selected and although we could not retain the Technical Adviser Mauro Procaccini, we retained six of the players from the WOQT squad – Upe Atosu, Sarah Ogoke, Ndidi Madu, Ezinne Kalu, Adaora Elonu and Chioma Udeaja. We were also able to add some key players including Evelyn Akhator and Atonye Nyingifa to the “core” of the team.
Nigeria was grouped along with Egypt, Mozambique, Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo and defending champions – Senegal. DTigress cruised through the group stage winning all 5 games and averaging the 72.3PPG – the highest among all 12 teams at the group stage. WNBA’ Dallas Wings’ Evelyn Akhator was the highest scorer in three of the five group games finishing with double-doubles in our game against Egypt and Senegal. After the first three group games, the ladies secured a spot in the Quarterfinals – the first team in the tournament to do so.
Our quarterfinal game against Cote D’Ivoire was also a cruise for the team as the ladies dominated all four quarters of the game. Not only did we defeat the Ivorians with over 50points, five of our players had double digits points. The victory propelled us to the semifinals to face host Mali. Now, here’s the thing – at the 2015 Women’s Afrobasket Tournament, we lost the semifinal game to the host country, Cameroon with just one point (71-70). Fast forward to 2017 – another semifinal game, another host country. It was one of the most thrilling games of the tournament and it kept most people on the edge of their seats till the final buzzer. There was a lot at stake, not only was the winner guaranteed a podium finish, the winner will clinch one of the spots available for Africa at the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Spain.
It was a skills contest between the two guards – Ezinne Kalu and Mali’s Touty Gandega. Nigeria led by 11 points at the end of the first half but a determined Malian side with the support of a very loud crowd attempted a comeback in the last quarter. One that we survived, defeating the host country with just one point. The final score was 48 – 47.
Such an irony.
The final game against 12 times African Champions, Senegal was a repeat of the 2005 Women’s Afrobasket Tournament in Abuja when DTigress defeated the Lioness of Senegal to win their second title. While Senegal has won two titles within that period (2009 in Madagascar and 2015 in Cameroon), it has been a title drought for Nigeria. Nigeria was hoping to make a prediction come through and fulfilling the prophecy by bringing home Malian gold thus ending a 12-year drought. Senegal, on the other hand, was trying to extend their record to 13 titles from 17 finals.
After four quarters of action, DTigress emerged victorious in a 65 – 48 victory over the Senegalese to lift the 2017 Women’s Afrobasket trophy. Nigeria scored the most points with an average of 80.6 PPG and Evelyn Akhator made the All-Star Five, although many thought she deserved the MVP award. But like Mfon Udoka rightly said, Nigerian will take the trophy over the MVP award.
What is next for the African champions is to build on this victory, retain the core of the players and strengthen the team in some key areas and prepare well in the 2018 Women’s World Cup in Spain. So that, come 2021, we will be able to defend our Afrobasket title and win back to back championship like we did in 2003 and 2005.
"We set a goal that we want to win. We came here for the gold. The more we keep playing, the more confidence we keep getting and the more trust we get amongst us." – Akhator