Since 2003 when the Nigeria D’Tigress won the first of its back-to-back FIBA Africa Championship for women, the country has not had a team capable of matching that trailblazing squad that also earned the first basketball ticket to the Olympic Games. Since 2006 after a World Championship appearance, D’Tigress has not excited basketball fans.
The 2003 squad was great for different reasons besides repeating the Afrobasket Women Championship in 2005; it also earned a trip to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. And even though the Nigerian squad went 1-5 win/loss at Athens 2004, Nigeria’s Mfon Udoka had the second highest points per game with 21.7. The team also made it to the 2006 FIBA World Championship for Women in Brazil.
However, the female squad has not measured-up to the standards set by the 2003 – 2006 teams that featured Udoka, Mactabene Amachree, and Mobolaji Akiode among others.
But there is a ray of hope and a chance to rewrite history for this present squad as it attempts a mountainous climb to the peak at the 2015 FIBA Africa Women Championship in Yaounde, Cameroon. Sarah Ogoke appears to be the centerpiece of the team. With her third consecutive appearance at the biennial tournament, she has her work cut out with what is considered the most experienced player with good knowledge of the African teams. She has traversed many countries and different leagues from the United States, Nigeria, Angola, and now with a new team in Spain. The 5’10 guard was the leading scorer on the Nigerian team at the 2013 Afrobasket in Mozambique; she also had her best game against the host nation going off for 25 points on a perfect 4/4 from the field and 8 of 12 from the free throw line.
To win it all at the 2015 Afrobasket in Cameroon, the Nigerian team will need quality contributions from its other players. If there’s anything Nigeria needs to learn, one player doesn’t make a team. The United States senior female basketball team did not have a single player in the top five leading scorers at the 2004 Athens Games but won the gold medal. Nigeria’s Mfon Udoka was the event’s second leading scorer with 21.7 points, but the team suffered due to lack of firepower from other players.
The team that represented Nigeria at the just concluded All African Games in Brazzaville, Congo was without Uju Ugoka, the double-double machine capable of providing strength and post-presence. Except her team permits her to honour national assignment in the early part of its season, the Nigerian squad will have to look on to fill that void with a more productive player.
Twenty-five year old Adaora Elonu appears to be a perfect substitute for Ugoka. Quite frankly, a frontcourt combination of these two players will be a nightmare for opponents, but the presence of one makes up for the absence of the other. Elonu is a 6’1 alumna of Texas A&M University and has been a solid contributor to Spanish team CB Conquero, where she was the top scorer for the team in just her first season there, averaging 14.5 points per game in addition to 6.8 rebounds. That performance ensured the team re-signed her in July 2015 until the end of the 2016 season. In just her first campaign for the Nigerian D’Tigress, which was at the 2015 All African Games, Elonu averaged 15.2 pts and 12.1 rbs in the last three games of the tournament.
Notwithstanding the positives, the Nigerian team has to go through Angola and Senegal, two basketball powerhouses in Africa currently ranked higher than the Nigerian female team. Beyond the preliminary round, Nigeria will have to play its best game should it find itself pitted against Mali, a team that has won 8 of 10 games in different tournaments. Mali’s first loss to the Nigerian team came at the hands of the dominant 2005 team, losing 69 – 44 at the 2005 FIBA Africa Championship for Women. Mali’s second loss to Nigeria was at the recently-concluded 2015 All African Games where it lost marginally to Nigeria 69-70 at the preliminary stage. Nigeria would eventually lose 57-73 to Mali at the gold medal game of the tournament.
Nigeria’s female basketball team has always been several steps ahead of the male team in achievements. And as the male team recently broke the jinx that has denied it the Afrobasket title by winning the trophy in Tunisia and earning an automatic ticket to the Rio 2016 Olympics, the challenge has now been thrown to D’Tigress to win this year’s Afrobasket Women Championship and earn Nigeria a second ticket to participate at the basketball event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
Image credits: Olayinka Sanni; Mfon Udoka (facebook.com); fiba.com; thewangconnection.com