By Ayotunde Onabolu
Elo Edeferioka grabbed the most important offensive rebound in the history of Nigerian basketball in the 57-56 win over Greece which qualified the nation to the quarterfinals of the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Spain. She did it with 3.2 seconds left in the game with Nigeria down by one point. The lady with the blond dyed hair was fouled on her putback attempt and converted both free throws, sending Nigeria to her first ever quarterfinal appearance at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, men or women.
Up next for D’Tigress is a date with the United States of America—the best team in the history of basketball—in the quarterfinals. Let this sink: THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA IS THE SINGLE BEST COUNTRY IN THE HISTORY OF BASKETBALL, MEN OR WOMEN, BOYS OR GIRLS!
Up until 1992 when the famed Dream Team won gold for the United States at the Barcelona Olympic Games, the US featured teams with amateur players in international competitions and still dominated somehow. The men have won 15 of 18 Olympic Games they attended in all, including the last 3 editions, and have won the last two World Cups. The women, who are the focus this time, have won eight of the last nine Olympic tournaments and six of the last eight World Cups, including the last two in the Czech Republic (2010) and Turkey (2014).
In terms of quality and pedigree, the Americans tower above any other team at the World Cup. They have veteran names on their roster. In fact, of the 12 ladies on the roster, only two (Kelsey Plum and WNBA Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson) did not take part in the WNBA Playoffs which ended just 10 days to the start of the World Cup, meaning ten players came into the World Cup with a lot of competitive fire in them.
Take a look at their team statistics. The Americans lead the World Cup in points (96.3 points per game), assists (26 assists per game), field goal percentage (52.1%) and free throws (86.4%). Unlike several other teams who rely on one star player for offensive production, the US has six players averaging double figures in scoring (Breanna Stewart, A’Ja Wilson, Tina Charles, Nneka Ogwumike, Diana Taurasi and Elena Delle Donne). For the US, it’s all about collective teamwork. How won’t it be, especially with 10 WNBA All-Stars and three current WNBA champions on their roster?
The interesting thing about these Americans is the way they have approached games so far at the World Cup. The first quarter is usually when they feel out their opposition and they explode from there. When it comes to basketball fundamentals, no one does it better than the Americans—pick and roll, post play, pull up shooting, spot on shooting, ball movement, aggressive drives, initiating contact to draw fouls, etc.
When you see a team as near-perfect as the Americans, you begin to wonder how minnows like Nigeria can cope.
First off, Nigeria is nowhere near the US in terms of player quality, where players ply their trade, players’ exposure, and their general individual and team statistics at the World Cup. This is why D’Tigress cannot afford to make mistakes with every single possession they have in the game.
This is where every single possession counts! This is a game where the Nigerian ladies may have to move the ball for almost the entire 24-second shot clock to find the best shot available. This is a game where their offensive rebounding, which is the clear best in the tournament, has to be at an all-time elite level, especially because they will up against solid elite rebounders like Brittney Griner, Breanna Stewart, A’Ja Wilson, Tina Charles and Elena Delle Donna (if she plays as she has injury concerns).
There’s a huge likelihood that the Americans will try to exploit their height advantage in the post by getting the ball to Stewart and Griner down-low perhaps from their very first possession. Griner missed out on the first two games because of injury but came off the bench in their 102-76 blowout of Latvia to score 15 points and grab six rebounds in only 14 minutes of play! Ridiculous! This, therefore, means Nigeria’s bigs have to step up big time.
Evelyn Akhator has got to show up one more time with intense rebounding and show the Americans why she does, in fact, belong to the WNBA. Despite being drafted with the third overall pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft, Akhator couldn’t secure a spot on the Dallas Wings’ roster and had to sign a contract with Besiktas. Friday’s game provides the perfect opportunity to show the Americans what they are missing.
Nigeria’s perimeter defense has to be elite. So far, Diana Taurasi and her best friend, Sue Bird (who faced each other in the 2018 WNBA Finals) haven’t fired on all cylinders like we know they can, but they have not had to fire really, because the American team has been built primarily for post play. Of course, when they dominate in the paint, the resultant reaction on defense will be to double-team post players, meaning there will be one wide open shooter on the arc ready to rifle threes. Of course, leaving someone wide open can also result in some devastating ball movement which can demoralize a defense.
In all, Nigeria has to be disciplined. Turnovers have to be cut down to the barest minimum. And if there is a time the heart, hustle, character, and courage that have characterized Nigeria’s run at the World Cup so far have to sure up one hundred percent, it is in the game against the United States.
D’Tigress must remember that the first key to defending the post is to do all in their power to deny entry passes down-low and that is where Akhator and Atonye Nyingifa have a lot to do. Guards Ezinne Kalu and Adaora Elonu must stick to their matchups and must fight against screens because the Americans set a whole lot of ball screens that suck pretty much 20 percent of your energy because of the strength of their big men.
And speaking about Elonu, she hasn’t shown up at all so far. She is supposed to be one of Nigeria’s Top 3 players at the World Cup. This is the game she needs to show the world that the contract extended to her by the Atlanta Dream was no fluke. She must bring her A-game!
Playing against the United States is never the delight of any team, but again, to be the best, you have to beat the best, and beating the best means you have to be at your best and extra. It’s all about putting your life on the line to defend the Green and White. There is ZERO margin of error.
History has already been made twice by D’Tigress at the World Cup. Why stop now? WHY?
The United States women have NEVER won three World Cups in a row, a run dating back to 1994 when they finished third after winning back-to-back titles in 1986 and 1990. They won back-to-back titles again in 1998 and 2002 but finished third in 2006. They won in 2010 and 2014.
Could Nigeria be their stumbling block this year? WHY NOT?