by Ayotunde Onabolu
It’s true Nigeria lost to Australia 86-68 in their first game at the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup going on in Tenerife, Spain. It’s true that the 18-point loss stretches Nigeria’s run of losses to six straight. Let it sink—Nigeria is now 0-6 all-time at the Women’s World Cup.
That should get the nation worried, shouldn’t it? Well, maybe not necessarily. And here’s why:
First up is that only one team—the team that finishes first in the group—is guaranteed a place in the quarterfinals. There is some personal gratitude to FIBA for this initiative they took four years ago in Turkey.
Let’s get to the game proper.
The Opals (as the Australians are fondly called) came into the tournament with a lethal weapon at their disposal—Liz Cambage, a 6ft 8in freak of nature who had caused some damage in the recently concluded WNBA season. The 27 year-old tallied 23 points per game (led the league), 9.7 rebounds per game (second in the league) and 1.6 blocks per game (fifth in the league), while shooting 58.9 percent from the field (fourth in the league). In fact, she recorded the most points scored in a game in WNBA history on July 17 when she poured in 53 points for Dallas Wings in a win over the New York Liberty. In international competition, Cambage (whose father is Nigerian by the way) led in points average at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio with 23.5 points per game.
So, there’s absolutely no question what the plan for the Aussies was: get the ball to Cambage in the post and get the heck out of the way!
And from tip off (which Cambage won), they set the ball rolling. On the very second possession for the Aussies, the ball went straight to Cambage in the post where she was fouled by Aisha Mohammed. Guess what? The third and fourth possessions went to — you know who — Cambage!
Size was and has been a disadvantage for D’Tigress for several years now. Every tournament they’ve gone for in recent history, they’ve had to cope with being the smaller team, having to trade blows with bigger bodies in the post, and if any team is going to beat Nigeria, it has to be done down-low. Credit D’Tigress for their aggressive defense on the perimeter resulting in a poor 3-for-13 shooting from downtown for the Aussies.
The single best way to defend the post so stingily is to do all that can be done to deny the entry pass into the post in the first place. Going back to Cambage’s only playoff game this year in the WNBA, the Phoenix Mercury who defeated Cambage’s Dallas Wings did a great job in denying entry passes to Cambage and forced other players to shoot the ball. Cambage still scored 22 points on 50 percent shooting in that game, but imagine what could have been if she got the ball down-low more times.
Sadly, D’Tigress couldn’t stop the ball from getting to Cambage and she did utter damage scoring 34 points. The fact that she was the only Australian in double figures shows the poor job Nigeria did defend the paint, and once the ball got to her hands in good post position, she was unstoppable. D’Tigress got a little glimpse of how to defend Cambage better when Coach Otis Hughley sent Elo Edeferioka in to guard her. She kept fronting Cambage and made it difficult for her to get the ball in good offensive positions.
On a positive note though, Nigeria outrebounded Australia 42-41. Normally, it is said that the team that wins the battle of the boards ultimately wins the game, and so this was one rare case a team lost by 18 points despite outrebounding their opponents. Despite the obvious gulf in size, D’Tigress somehow dominated the Opals on the offensive boards, grabbing 19 offensive rebounds! But then again, they couldn’t convert those second-chance opportunities.
You’d probably think Turkey and Argentina will not have such a huge size and post advantage over Nigeria, and you’d be correct in thinking that way.
The offense was a struggle several times as there wasn’t much going on in terms of perimeter shooting, and it got a lot of people wondering why Nkechi Akashili sat on the bench throughout the game. Instead, the ladies kept trying to work their way into Australia’s post, resulting in eight blocks by the Aussies. If there was only an above average perimeter offense, the floor would have been well spread, leading to some wide open looks down-low.
It is hoped though that coach Hughley and his coaching crew will address this and the other aforementioned issues ahead of the next game against Turkey.
In summary, if Nigeria can impose their physicality as they did against Australia which resulted in several offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities, and can also get their perimeter offense going, they should have joy against Turkey and Argentina.
You cannot question the commitment and heart put on display by the Nigerian ladies, especially considering the fact that they kept the game very close—within single digits—until they ran out of gas in the fourth quarter.
The streak of losses at the World Cup looks likely to end in Spain. And if you write off D’Tigress, you do so at your own peril.