The Championship ended last Sunday. The Nigerian representatives, First Bank Basketball Club, are already back in the country.
Many people across the African continent followed the championship on television and must have watched on Supersports how the Elephant Girlsof Nigeria, particularly at the very end, in their very last game, shattered the myth of the superiority of Angolan female basketball, and broke the erroneous jinx of the invincibility of the Angolans in female basketball against Nigerian clubs.
It is ‘erroneous’ because it's been such a long time (13 years to be precise) that in winning the African championship title for the very first time First Bank defeated Primeiro de Agosto, an Angolan club and this year’s defending champions, in the finals. That feat was in 2003 in Maputo, Mozambique, a pulsating, nail-biting, nerve wrecking and dramatic final that ended 55-54. People have forgotten!
Indeed since then, no Nigerian female club had won a single match again against an Angolan club. That’s why the victory of First Bank last Sunday afternoon in Maputo (again) versus Primeiro de Agosto(again) in the third-place match was very significant. It broke a 13-year ‘jinx’.
After my report on the championship last weekend, this is just to fill in the rest of the gaps till the end.
The Elephant Girls played against FAP Yaounde, a physically intimidating Cameroonian club, in one of the quarter final matches and won.
The argument that three of the girls in FAP Yaounde were part of the national squad that had defeated the national female team of Nigeria at the Afrobasketballchampionship
On the night, the match was really an anti-climax. The Cameroonians collapsed and the Nigerian girls made mincemeat of them. The anticipated mountain became an ordinary mound on the ground
It was a sweet revenge for the three Nigerian girls in First Bank that were also in that defeated Nigerian national team in Yaoundé in 2015.
Following that victory, First Bank found itself once again at the semi-finals, the plateau that Nigerian teams have not found a way to rise above in several previous editions.
That’s where they usually met and were halted by either one of the two Angolan clubs that were turning winning of the championship almost into a birthright! In the last six editions of the championship, Interclube had won four times and Primeiro, the defending champions, once. Both clubs were again in the semi-finals in Maputo!
The fourth team in the semi-finals in addition to First Bank were the hosts, Ferroviario de Maputo, a team that was playing well up to that point with the help of a massive home support.
Semi-finals –The Real Battles!
In the first semi final match, Interclube de Luanda once again dealt Nigeria a bitter blow. They technically blew the champion female team of Nigeria apart, elongating the ‘myth’ of Angolan superiority.
Between Wale Aboderin, the great Chairman of Dolphins Club of Nigeria who came from Nigeria to watch the entire championship from start to finish (even though his team was missed at the event) and I, it was a period of sober reflection over the state of Nigerian female basketball as we sat together and watched the Nigerian girls clinically defeated by a team that played with ‘arrogant’ confidence.
For us, sitting through that agonizing match was a painful lamentation of Nigeria’s technical deficit in the game. We were wondering what more needed to be done to bridge the yawning gap between the standard of Angola in particular and the rest of the continent.
In the second semi-final match it was not expected that Ferroviariowould fall at any stage earlier than the final match, and they did not disappoint. In a well-fought match against the defending Champions, Primeiro, they played like girls possessed – pressing hard, running non-stop, chasing and physically contesting for every ball every inch and second of the way to the final buzzer – against the more experienced, bigger and stronger Angolan girls.
The pressure by the Mozambicans was so unrelenting that no one was surprised when the Angolans capitulated in the end and eventually lost. The defeat left Primeiro de Agosto so broken that when they eventually had to meet First Bank again, this time in the decisive battle for the Bronze medal position the following day, they had been well tempered for the Elephant Girls to devour!
It turned out to be First Bank’sbest match so far – a myth and a jinx breaker.
The Angolan girls, superior technically and individually, were intimidated so much by the hard fighting Nigerian girls that they could not find their rhythm for three quarters of the match with the scores remaining very close up until that point.
In the last quarter the Nigerian team performed a Houdini, pulling out of their hat of magical performances, tricks they had not displayed so far in the championship.
Slowly, steadily, deliberately, calmly and methodically they put the defending champions through a technical shredder and tore them to pieces.
The Angolan bench did not know what hit them. They must have woken up the following morning and asked each other the question: ‘what happened these last two nights?’
The final match was a drab and did not live up to expectation.
Champions – Interclubeagain!!
The Gold medal finally went again to the greatest female basketball club in the history of the game in Africa, the team that has, in the past 7 years, got to all the African club finals, and won the title 5 times. Interclube de Luanda, a club owned and funded by the Angolan Police, were truly the deserving champions once again.
In that team, in addition to having some of the most individually gifted African basketball players on the continent, the club has two truly exceptional American girls, Italee Lucas and Segnoia Holmes, that make all the difference.
Their presence in the team lightens up the championship every year, at least in the past four years that I personally witnessed. One of them, Italee, now holds an Angolan passport and plays for the Angolan national team. The other was voted the most valuable player of the championship.
I met and chatted with both of them at the departure lounge of the Maputo international airport as we were about to leave Mozambique.
They were heading for a one-week Safari in South Africa before returning to the United States of America and later in the year to Europe where they play full time professional basketball for clubs in Italy and Spain.
Every year, they spend three months in Angola to prepare and play full time for Interclube in the African championship.
Without question, they have held the key to Interclube’ssuccess these past few years and their story opens a pathway to what Nigerian clubs need to do to try to halt or catch up with them!
The wages the players in Angola earn would make some other African players go jump into the Atlantic in frustration. That includes Nigeria also, by the way.
I asked them jokingly what it would take to get them to either stay away from the championship next year so that First Bankcan stand a chance of a genuine shot at the title, or get them to come join the Elephant Girls.
They knew neither was possible. They laughed and still told me it was all a matter of cash! If the price is right anything is possible.
Nigeria’s Best Not Good Enough!
As we left Mozambique to return to Nigeria, it was Wale Aboderin’s words that kept ringing in my head. While we sat and watched Interclubetechnically give lessons on how great basketball should be played during their encounter with First Bank, he had remarked that Nigerian clubs and girls are surely doing their best, but that neither was good enough yet for the African title.
How profound, how true! Nigeria need to up the ante and massively raise the standard of their domestic game to be able to win the African title and start making appearances at the World Club Championship. But that would take a tsunami of some sort in administration, a massive mental shift and technical revolution in coaching, a new kind of leadership structure and better financing of clubs!
Only time will tell if and when that will ever happen. But for now, as the curtains are drawn to end another fantastic festival of basketball in the beautiful, safe and serene city of Maputo -there was not even a blink of electricity power failure in the two weeks of our stay in one of the poorest countries in the world- with its stunning beaches and beautiful women all over the place, it is celebration time for us here in Nigeria, with First Bankwhose Bronze medal is (almost) as good as Gold!