The present crop of girls that represented Nigeria at the 2016 FIBA Africa Women Under 16 Championship in Madagascar are rare breeds. They understand just one language – WIN!
Despite the suspension of three players on the team for being over the specified age limit after a wrist scan by the FIBA Technical Committee in Madagascar, the Nigerian team remained a cohesive unit. For young women still in their mid-teens, the suspension of those three players could have dampened their morale and any loss that came afterwards would have been excused. After all, the Nigerian team was the only one playing with a diminished roster. But true to the resilient spirit that characterizes the average Nigerian, they lifted their heads up and kept hope alive.
And hope prevailed.
In their first game of the tournament, and with lesser firepower than their opponent, the Nigerian girls drew first blood by defeating a seemingly stronger Egyptian team 54 – 52. Egypt had a good history at the bi-annual tournament, coming second place in the past three editions behind Mali.
The Nigerian team bullied its way past every opponent, with guard Rita James establishing herself as a solid scorer in the process. Hosts Madagascar was the second victim, losing 53 – 60 to the Nigerians. Next up was the Moroccan team, which lost 42 – 26 to Nigeria. Tunisia sailed to the quarter-finals, only to have their hopes dashed as they faced-off with Nigeria, the black swan of the tournament. Nigeria effectively edged Tunisia out of the race to the finals, defeating the north African nation 55 – 44.
As Nigeria squared up against Mozambique in the semi-finals, Rita James struggled with her shooting touch on what was, perhaps, her worst night at the tournament. She struggled from the field, scoring just 4 of 12 attempts and shooting 25% from behind the three-point arc. James would eventually finish the game with nine points. The game would have gone into overtime but for the heroic efforts of Monica Ezekiel. Tied at 51 – 51 and 10 seconds to the end of the fourth quarter, Ezekiel launched a 3-point shot but missed. Rita James caught the offensive rebound and launched an outlet pass to Ezekiel who fired another 3-point shot with just 6 seconds left on the shot clock, scoring and effectively sealing the win for Nigeria.
That win over Mozambique was historic as it earned Nigeria a spot to the finals and a ticket to the 2016 FIBA World Women Under 17 Championship which will take place from 25 June to 3 July 2016.
Nigeria’s attempt to win it all by upstaging defending champion and three time winner of the FIBA Africa Women U-16 Championship was not to be. The Malians proved relentless and led the entire game to retain their title after a 57 – 46 defeat.
Rita James’ individual feat in lifting the Nigerian team to glory was awarded as she was named the Best 3-Point Shooter of the tournament and one of the best five players of the tournament.
For Nigeria, a country long-inactive in age-grade basketball tournaments after a four-year hiatus, getting to the finals and booking a spot at the World Championships is indeed the stuff of fantasies. The only difference is this one came true!