If there was ever a doubt that Nigeria’s D’Tigers are the undisputed Kings of African Basketball, such has now been put to bed after their remarkable run of six unbeaten matches to secure qualification for the 2021 AfroBasket Championships in Rwanda.
Two-round victories each against South Sudan, Rwanda and Mali, ensured that Nigeria finished the qualifiers without dropping a match. They secured qualification without having to call up their best players in the NBA and other leagues to prosecute the qualifiers.
With just a victory needed to book their passage, Nigeria defeated South Sudan 75-70 points on Wednesday to punch their ticket. However, that win didn’t come easily. Luol Deng’s well-drilled side put up a spirited performance and gave Nigeria much to worry about.
If South Sudan was a one-off, the match against Rwanda proved that many teams in Africa are now catching up. The 2021 Afrobasket championships hosts had led by 8pts after the first quarter, and still had the lead going into the break, but Nigeria came out of the locker improving on their shooting and somehow pulled off a 64-51 victory that belied the contest.
Mali was meant to be the toughest opposition, and with veterans like Ibrahim Django in their side, they were expected to shackle the newbies in the Nigerian team and put up a stiffer test. It was completely the opposite. D’Tigers came out blazing with intent, ending the first quarter with a 24-6 lead. Going on to win the match by 20pts (76-56).
Yet again, skipper Ike Diogu who will be 38 in September, proved his mettle and immense value to the team, finishing with a game-high double-double (20pts & 11rebs).
Overall, it was an all-around team display, and the new players really staked a case to make the team. Chima Moneke who was called up in the first round of the qualifiers last year but didn’t play, earned his spot this time around, and he grabbed the opportunity accounting for 7 steals in three matches.
There were other impressive new players like Abdul Malik Abu whose 9points rally in the 3rd and 4th quarter against Rwanda, helped galvanize his team to turn the corner in their second game. Uche Iroegbu (Ike Iroegbu’s younger brother) broke out from his elder brother’s shadow, and started charting his own course.
But some credit has to go to the 30-year-old coach, Mfon Udofia who stood in for Mike Brown and Alex Nwora, both unavoidably absent from the last round of the qualifiers. Nigeria does not just have depth in the playing staff, Udofia proved that he was a capable understudy.
It showed how he managed the side with less than one week of training time, and having to utilize his squad judiciously even after losing Amaze Egekeze to an injury after the first game.
The last time Nigeria won the men’s Afrobasket championships was in 2015, with how they have executed these qualifiers, they are undoubtedly the favourites to win it much later this year in Rwanda, and even other countries are surely wary of their prospects.
Undefeated. 🇳🇬🇳🇬🇳🇬 pic.twitter.com/98Pge0EFER
— D’Tigers | Nigeria Basketball (@NigeriaBasket) February 19, 2021