AfroBasket

Koranga and the Lionesses will have a competitive edge

Award winning season for Koranga

FELMAS Koranga does not mince her words when she says basketball was not her preferred choice of sport. To her, participating in basketball and other sporting codes were a form of escape and having fun.

“I tried different sports to figure where I fit in best. Note, this was for FUN! There was no intention from my side on building my future through sport,” said the 25-year-old. “I was the type of person who did not want to tire because of physical activity. I would cry a lot when instructed to put up shots and get fit.

“No. I did not want any of that. It was something to look forward to after class. Something refreshing.”

The influence of her older brother Ariel Okall Koranga, who plays for the Kenya Morans, also proved to be the turning point for Felmas.

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Felmas Koranga in action against Rwanda in AfroBasket Zone IV qualifiers. Pictures: FIBA

“I was introduced to basketball by my older brother Ariel. Well, he insisted that I take it up and I am here because of that,” said the power forward.

There’s a twist of irony in Koranga’s journey, as what turned out to be a leisure activity has seen her achieve excellence for her country and university team.

Koranga, the first Kenyan to play in the NCAA tournament has had a stellar season for Troy University in Alabama. Her performance for Troy was so good she won the Sun Belt Newcomer of the year and was named the All-Sun Belt Second team. She was part of the Trojans team that made the NCAA tournament, although they fell to Texas A&M in the first round.

Initially, Koranga struggled to adjust in her new environment but eventually knuckled down and was able to settle.

“I have to say it was not easy at first. Having to cope and gel in the system was not easy. It took me some time. I think in late January till March, I began to settle and be comfortable with the style of play,” said the former Tyler Junior College player.

Despite her achievements, Koranga was not overly excited about her success. To her, the awards are a sign that the behind the scenes work on her game have paid off and helped contribute to the team.

I know it’s a big platform and stuff, but I don’t get carried away with things like that. It’s just a title and a name. To me it’s just like any other game,” said Koranga, who took a similar tone on her individual achievements. “When you put in work it’s sometimes possible to predict that something big is going to happen. Also, the work I put in was not for individual accolades but for the success of the team.”

She also carried her form to Kenya’s Lionesses for the FIBA Zone V AfroBasket qualifiers. In the process, she also continued a proud family legacy of representing the East African nation in international competitions.

Her father, Elijah Koranga, who played for Kenya’s Harambee Stars in the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations, set the benchmark. Ariel matched the feat as he recently helped the Morans end a 27-year absence from international basketball by qualifying for this year’s men’s AfroBasket in Rwanda (24 August to 5 September).

Now, Felmas has written herself into Kenya’s sporting lore as she helped lead the Lionesses to qualify for the women’s competition (AfroBasket) in Cameroon (17-26 September).

Nakuru-born Felmas explains that the battle for bragging rights within the family is friendly. She points that it used to be her father who held the mantle for a long time. Now Ariel and herself are perched next to the Koranga patriarch in terms of sporting success.

“It is a little competition that we have going on. Dad used to say he is the only one who has competed on a higher platform. Ariel also used to say: ‘dad is not the only person that can speak in the house’. But now I’m the main person,” quipped Koranga.

 
 
 
 
 
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Koranga and the Lionesses made hard work of their qualifying route to Cameroon. Round robin losses to hosts Rwanda (77-44) and Egypt (107-106) and the one win over South Sudan (66-48) sandwiched in between last month saw the Kenyans having to dig deep.

What they found going into the semi-final and final was self-belief. So galvanised were the Lionesses, they swept aside Rwanda (79-52) and Egypt (99-83) to stamp their ticket to the women’s showpiece tournament.

“We did not expect it, but we had a measure of hope. Also, we wanted to prove a point. Some people did not believe in us,” said Koranga, who was named the power forward of the qualifying tournament.

Kenya will expect more award-winning performances from Koranga in the 12-team tournament. The Lionesses are Group A with the hosts Cameroon and Cape Verde.

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Felmas Koranga poses with her individual trophy.

Koranga acknowledges that competing in the tournament will present a different kind of challenge for the Lionesses.

“It’s going to be tough for all the teams. It’s a different level of competition. We have to practice like we are going to face people playing in the WNBA. That’s the attitude everybody should have. We are not overconfident, but we are coming there to compete,” said Koranga, who was non-committal about how far the team would go.

“Somebody asked me the same question. Honestly, I never have an answer to such a question. All I will say is we will compete. Hopefully, we will get somewhere.”

Looking at Kenya’s record at this competition, what stands out is that the Lionesses finished fifth in 1986, second in 1993 and fourth in 1997. Since then, there was nothing to write home about in the last three AfroBaskets they participated in.

While they are far from the upward ascent of those early years, Koranga intimated that the ball is rolling in trying to get the team back on track. She says there have been challenges in the rebuilding process.

“You won’t believe this, but before we went to Rwanda, we had been together for only ten days. You could tell from our first game that the chemistry was not there,” said Koranga. “There is an ongoing process of rebuilding the team. I feel we have talent. The right things need to be put in place so that the team well prepared.”

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Barros hopes AfroBasket can unlock new doors

Cape Verde to put on a show for their fans

PLAYING on the big stage in sport can open new doors for competing athletes. Cape Verde point guard Alexia Barros harbours the hope that a good performance at the women’s AfroBasket will be the key to unlocking new opportunities for herself.

The 26-year-old hopes playing the lights out in the tournament which Cameroon will host (from 17-26 September) will help her achieve her dream of playing in the WNBA.

Another added advantage for the United States-born Barros is that she recently joined the New England Trailblazers, a team that competes in the Women’s American Basketball Association (WABA). Both situations give the 5ft8 guard an advantage in her quest to fulfil her ambition of playing in the elite women’s league.

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Lexi Barros believes Cape Verde can do big things at this year’s AfroBasket. Pictures: FIBA

The floor general believes she is within touching distance of achieving her goal and is hopeful that the work she has put in will yield a positive outcome.

“My dream is to play in the WNBA. I feel I am close to getting to my dream. I have to keep working hard. Work on the little things that will help my game progress,” said the former Community College of Rhode Island player.

She also relishes playing for club and country. “It’s fulfilling to play for both teams. I can’t wait to see what playing for them will do for my basketball career. The doors it can open and the new people I am going to meet. I am excited at the prospect of seeing new opportunities come alive. It feels good. I feel like something is coming.”

With the groundwork laid to work towards her aspirations, the AfroBasket tournament looms for Barros and Cape Verde.

A look-back to their route to qualifying for the women’s tournament, a stand-out feature is that the islanders had to overcome difficult odds against Guinea, Conakry in a two-legged Fiba Africa Zone 2 qualifier in June.

Both legs took place in Conakry at the Stade 28 Septembre indoor venue, in front of a raucous and passionate home crowd. Cape Verde fought courageously but lost a close first leg by a single digit (65-64). A day later, Barros and her teammates took the battle to Guinea and valiantly triumphed by a 9-point margin (68-59) to qualify for the continental showpiece.

Reflecting on the qualifiers, Barros says playing as a unit against their much taller opponents led to Cape Verde securing their ticket to Cameroon.

“That experience was marvellous, especially playing there. Guinea was a tough team and a lot bigger than us, but we managed to hold our own. We did not have our fans. We had to rely on each other and stay together. I am proud of my teammates and what we achieved,” said Barros. “Their fans were a little wild. It was a small gym, and when they scored, you heard it. There was a lot of banging and loud horns. From an objective perspective, it was a beautiful atmosphere.

“We wanted to win and show the world that we are here. What we now need is support, and we also need to keep working hard, especially for this next tournament.”

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On the subject of support, Barros, who will participate in her second AfroBasket, hopes the national federation can equally support the women’s team as they do the men. Barros believes she and her teammates are keeping their end by preparing themselves for the upcoming tournament.

“We have some players in the States and most of our players in Cape Verde, and we need to come together to build the team chemistry,” said Barros. “We work our butts off, everyone from the coach, assistants, even the people in the federation help us a lot, but it’s little things that we need.

The same treatment and profile that the boys get should also be accorded to us as well. It’s starting to change a little bit, but it can be better.”

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Lexi Barros says playing for Cape Verde has helped her personal growth.

On Cape Verde’s chances at the 12-team tournament, Barros spoke with confidence that they can outduel any opponent. She also emphasised the need for teamwork if they are to make an impression in Cameroon.

“We need to play together. I feel we can beat any team. We have a lot of good shooters. We are a guard-heavy team and rely a lot on our speed for fastbreaks. There is a lot of experience in our group and some new players as well,” said Barros. “We want to do big things this year. We want to put on a show for our fans.”

Barros also appreciates donning the Cape Verde vest, what it has done to advance her basketball career, and is using her platform as an international player to be an example for the younger generation.

“I want to go far with this team. I want to play for as many years as possible. Playing for Cape Verde has been the most amazing thing in my life,” said Barros. “The fans there really support us, and the kids look up to us.

“That’s the one thing I like the most, having the chance to be a role model here at home in the US and in Cape Verde.”

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D’Tigers and Moneke on the prowl for Olympics success

“The word that describes me best is energy”

AT 25-years-old Nigeria’s Chima Moneke has had a life most young people could only carve out in their dreams.

A son of diplomats, Moneke learnt that settling in one place would not be the norm for him. Instead, he became a global citizen rooted in his African identity.

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Chima Moneke prides himself in playing defence. Pictures: FIBA and Cheick Haidara

“By the age of seventeen, I had lived on five continents. I made a lot of friends who I have stayed connected with on Facebook. I did not think about it until I became a man and understood that my life was rare. Many people don’t get the opportunity to travel,” said Abuja-born Moneke.

The globetrotting experience, while an eye-opener, Moneke has learnt, it also comes at a cost. Like being away from family and not being able to settle in one place.

“Travelling has helped me appreciate all kinds of cultures. It has helped me see all types of cultures and not just hear about them. The negatives were moving around and not seeing my family. I have not seen my father since 2009. It was the same thing with my mom, but she came to visit me in 2018. So it’s been a tough life, but it has had its rewards.” said Moneke, who got his first taste of the diplomatic life at two-years-old, when his parents moved to Australia.

Even though he country-hopped with his family, a common thread in Moneke’s life was basketball, a sport he picked up in his teens. But before basketball took over, football had captured his imagination with Nigeria’s Super Eagles his favourite team.

“I was a football fan. Of course, being Nigerian, I was a Super Eagles fan. I did not start playing basketball until I was thirteen-years-old. So that’s where the story started,” said Moneke.

The D’ Tigers, Nigeria’s national team, will be happy that Moneke, who sports a unique look on game days, ditched football for his new found love.

On the basketball court, Moneke is instantly recognisable. What makes him stand out? His locks, headband and eyewear are part of his ensemble when he steps on the court, for country and club.

 

 

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Although his on court appearances make him stand out , Moneke is not afraid to get down and dirty where it counts the most.

“The word that describes me best is energy. I am versatile. I am a smart player. I have good timing to block shots, get steals and rebounds. I think all of that is under-appreciated. I can make plays off the dribble. I am proud of my defence. I can guard anybody on the ball,” said Moneke alluding to his strengths.

The forward is not afraid to point out the areas of his game that need improvement. “Guarding off the ball is something I have been struggling with in my rookie season and last year. This season I have taken a big step and continue to make good strides. I also need to trust my shot,” reflected Moneke.

While he is a work in progress, Moneke’s attributes contributed to Nigeria’s recent qualification for the FIBA Afrobasket tournament in Rwanda (24 August – 5 September). Helping the D’ Tigers reach their goal has Moneke feeling proud to represent Africa’s most populous nation.

“I still don’t think I understand the magnitude of what I have done. Even though it was the qualifiers, the feeling of Nigeria on my chest was a proud moment. This is the seventh most populated country in the world and I was one of the ten people selected. It was amazing,” said Moneke. “Hearing the national anthem made me think about the times I watched the Super Eagles and D’ Tigers at the Olympics. I was now in that position. All my people in Australia and Nigeria were watching me. And my parents were proud of me. It was just an incredible feeling and moment.”

With qualifications for the AfroBasket and the Olympics (July 25 – 7 August in Tokyo) sealed, Moneke now has one more task. That is to convince D’ Tigers head coach Mike Brown, an assistant coach for NBA franchise Golden State Warriors to retain him for both tournaments. These prospects have heightened Moneke’s ambition and desire, especially for the Olympics.

“I want more. I want to make the Olympic team. Internationally, there’s nothing bigger than the Olympics. If I can make the team on that stage. Man! No words.” said Moneke, who plays for the French LNB club, Orleans Loiret Basket.

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Chima Moneke dreams of playing for Nigeria at the Olympics.

Given the calibre of head coach hired by the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF) and the talent pool available to the D’Tigers, Moneke believes they can capture a medal in Tokyo. Moneke also feels that if more players of Nigerian descent played for the West African nation, it would be a completely different story.

“We are not satisfied with just being a top team on the continent. The talent Nigeria has is incredible. If players of Nigerian origin, like Giannis Antetokoumpo, Victor Oladipo, decided to represent the team, how can you tell us that we are not winning a medal? The only thing that puts us at a disadvantage is that we did not grow up playing together.

“You have seen the Australians play together. America has immense talent. Players in countries like Lithuania, Spain and France grew up playing together and competing against each other,” said Moneke. Nigeria is establishing itself as a powerhouse internationally. We are now getting players from different parts of the world. If we grew up playing with and against each other we would be winning medals.”

Moneke’s optimism for Nigeria’s prospects at the Olympics is understandable. A quality coach, exceptional players and a winning attitude. All these ingredients make for a team capable of causing a stir in Tokyo. And who knows they could indeed win a medal.

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Cape Verde prepared for dog-fight in tough group

“We are focused. We have prepared well”

JOEL Almeida’s transition to basketball came as a way of him trying something new. Like most youngsters on the African continent, Cape Verde-born Almeida started out playing football, but the basketball bug bit in his mid-teens and he never looked back.

Since then, Almeida’s career has seen him traverse different parts of the world. Beginning with the college system in the United States of America. The 35-year old would later play in his country of birth, Angola, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and now Georgia, where he plays for BC Kutaisi.

“I started playing football. I switched to basketball when I was 15. I moved to the States for junior college and later college. I then made the move to Europe to play professionally and I have been there since 2009,” said Almeida, who elaborated on his change to basketball. “I wanted to try new things. Football is the main sport in Cape Verde. But, when I was growing up, I tried many sports as well. My friends convinced me to try basketball. They saw my height and were sure I would be good at it. I tried and eventually fell in love with it.”

 

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Having played in the parts of the world that he has, the shooting guard is well versed in different basketball cultures, which matured him as a player.

Playing in the US and Europe, you learn that the approach to the game is different. Adapting to different styles helps you grow as a player. It gives you more experience and a different outlook. When you encounter certain situations on the court, you will know how to adjust,” said Almeida, who played for Mowhawk Valley Community College in America.

Almeida’s approach and experience will come in handy for Cape Verde. The island nation, begin the final leg of the Afrobasket qualifiers in Monastir, Tunisia today.

Holding a 1-2 record from the opening window in Rwanda last year, Cape Verde have to show a marked improvement when they tip-off against Morocco in group E. The Cape Verdeans hold the psychological edge over the Moroccans, having beaten them last year. Their two defeats in the group, came at the hands of Egypt and Uganda.

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With the absence of Ivan Almeida, this presents an opportunity for other Cape Verde players to step up. Pictures: FIBA

“We are focused. We have prepared well. Right now, we aim to take it one game at a time. So we will do our best to come out with a victory,” said Almeida. “This group is a tough one. The teams are good and balanced. You can see the results from last year’s opening window. There were no blow-outs. All the games were close, with small point differentials.”

Giving his assessment of the teams in Cape Verde’s group, Almeida says it will be an all out battle to secure spots for the AfroBasket in Rwanda (24 August -5 September).
“Morocco has competed in continental competitions for many years. They have brought in some new players for this window. They are younger and inexperienced at this level. Egypt are a powerhouse. They have great players and are a balanced team. They also have experience on their side and are also well-coached. Uganda are up and coming. They have great talent, also well-coached and are a united team. So, it’s a tough group. Every game is going to be a dog-fight,” said the former Brockport State player.

On Cape Verde’s chances of securing their ticket to the continental showpiece, Almeida believes the key is motivation.

“We are motivated to get to Rwanda. We want to be on the biggest stage of African basketball competition. This window presents us with that chance. It’s now or never,” said Almeida. “Qualifying for the AfroBasket would mean a lot to the country and our people. We want to make them proud. We want to be there. We are willing to do what it takes to get there.”

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Joel Almeida says the team are motivated and ready achieve their goal.

To achieve this ambition, Almeida, one of the statistical leaders for Cape Verde, will have to be at the top of his game. His record from the opening window reads as follows: 12.3 points per game; 5.3 rebounds per game and 3.7 assists. While Cape Verde will rely on Almeida being at his peak, the veteran player says there are other intangibles required to get the job done.

“It’s about doing whatever the team needs you to do, whether it is scoring, rebounding or passing. You do whatever it takes to help the team win. There won’t always be good days. When it’s not a good day, you have to find other ways to contribute to the team effort,” said Almeida.

One player, who has not made the trip to Tunisia, due to injury is Almeida’s younger brother Ivan. The younger Almeida leads the team in scoring (21 points per game) and rebounding (10 points per game). While Ivan’s production on the court will be missed, Joel believes it’s an opportunity for other players to step up.

“We are going to miss him. He leads us in a lot of statistical categories. He can play multiple positions. He is our leader offensively and defensively. But we are ready. It’s next man up. Now everybody needs to chip in a little extra, for us to achieve our goal,” said Almeida.

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Tunisia will count on experience to qualify for AfroBasket

THE Big Tip Off spoke to Tunisia’s Omar Abada, to find out about their qualification process for the FIBA AfroBasket. Abada also shares his views about the absence of fans and who he regards as Tunisia’s greatest players.

 

BTO: The second window of qualifiers is taking place in Tunisia, your home country. Do you think it is an advantage for your team to play at home?

Omar Abada: Yes, it is an advantage to play at home, we know the venue and we are used to the conditions. It is a place where we know, we can play with confidence.

BTO: Because of Covid-19, Tunisia will not be playing in front of its fans. What will it feel like to play without them cheering the team?

OA: It is going to be difficult without their support, but we have set our goals. We have to achieve them, even without our fans.

BTO: Tunisia has a 3-0 record in the AfroBasket qualifiers. How confident are you going into the second window, that Tunisia will qualify?

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Omar Abada will look to contribute to Tunisia’s successful qualification. Pictures: FIBA

OA: We play the same way in every game or tournament. We put in 100% effort to win and play good basketball at both ends of the court.

BTO: You are one of the team leaders statistically, in terms of scoring, rebounds and assists in the first qualifying window. What are you doing to make sure you maintain the consistency for your team in the second window?

OA: In every game I play, I must focus. I have to play smart and play hard at both ends and to follow the coach’s instructions.

BTO: How would you describe this Tunisia team involved in the qualifiers? What are your strong points? Where do you think you can improve?

OA: We have a good team of experienced players and talented young players. Our strength is to play as a team offensively and defensively. We have to work on maintaining our consistency for 40 minutes.

BTO: You are one of the experienced players, in the Tunisia team. How important is this experience going into these qualifiers?

OA: Experience is important, especially in games of this magnitude. You have to know how to play against every opponent. You have to play smart and with confidence.

BTO: Tunisia has created a culture of winning in the AfroBasket (2011 and 2017). How important is it for you as players to qualify for the tournament and win?

OA: As a team, we have a target that we want to achieve, but the process of success is a step-by-step one.

BTO: Has Covid-19 affected the match fitness of Tunisia’s players? Have players been able to participate in competitive basketball in their various leagues?

OA: No, not at all. Covid-19 did not affect us. All the players of the national team have managed to play for their clubs. So, that is an advantage for us.

BTO: You are playing against the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and Madagascar. What do you think about each team?

OA: DRC are an athletic team. We have to play aggressive and smart against them to win. CAR have talented players. We should play as a team and help each other especially in defence to beat them. Madagascar are a quick team. We have to push them to play in the half-court and slow down their fast breaks.

BTO: You played in the FIBA 2019 World Cup, how was that experience for you and what did you learn from that tournament?

OA: The World Cup was a good experience for Tunisia and myself. Although we did not achieve our goal of qualifying for the Olympic Games, we showed the world we can compete against the high-level teams.

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Omar Abada has been one of the statistics leader for the Tunisia team.

BTO: How would you describe yourself as a basketball player? What are your strong points? What do you still want to improve?

OA: I think I have a high basketball IQ. I know what to do on the court and how to help my teammates be better. I want to improve defensively and that will make me a better basketball player.

BTO: What is your biggest achievement in basketball so far? And why?

OA: My biggest achievement in basketball is winning the 2017 AfroBasket. Firstly, it is the biggest tournament on the continent. Secondly, it was held in Tunisia and in front of our fans.

BTO: Which player has given you the toughest time on the basketball court? And why?

OA: Many players come to mind, but I would say Spain’s Ricky Rubio. He is one of the best point guards in the world. It is not easy to play against him.

BTO: Who is your favourite player in basketball? And why?

OA: The late Kobe Bryant. His talent and attitude. He wanted to be better every day. He also achieved everything in his career.

BTO: Who is Tunisia’s greatest player? And why?

OA: There are two, in my opinion: Makrem Ben Romdhane and Salah Mejri. Makrem has had a great career in the national team and has won many individual titles. He has also contributed to the success of the national team. Salah is one of the best players of all time in Africa. He has competed in the NBA and in Europe. At the national team level, he is an efficient player.

 

BTO: Do you remember your first basketball sneakers. Which brand were they?

OA: Kobe Bryant’s sneakers.

BTO: What sneakers are you playing with now?

OA: I currently wear Nike Paul George sneakers.

BTO: What is your favourite sports quote?

OA: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

BTO: What kind of person is Omar Abada off the basketball court?

OA: I am a serious person. I can talk about basketball, all day long. I also like to help people out of difficult situations.

BTO: How do you want to be remembered when you retire from basketball?

OA: I want to be remembered as a smart player who gave everything to his country.

BTO: What is your message to Tunisian fans, who will be cheering you on during the AfroBasket qualifiers?

OA: I want to tell them to support us from their living rooms. Their support and encouragement is important, even if they cannot come to the venue.

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Rwanda to raise their competitive bar in Tunisia

“We have to show that we want to win”

RWANDAN basketball has enjoyed an upward trajectory. This rise, although steady, has garnered recognition for the East African nation on the continent.

After successfully hosting the Basketball Africa League qualifiers two-years-ago, Rwanda added another feather in the cap, by hosting one leg of the Afrobasket qualifiers in November.

Unfortunately, hosting the Afrobasket qualifiers did not have the desired effect on Rwanda’s national team. Technically, Rwanda are AfroBasket hosts (24 August- 5 September) and did not need to play in the qualifiers. But they did and gave uninspiring displays at their home venue in Kigali.

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Rwanda captain Olivier Shyaka believes there has been a change in attitude in the team since the appointment of Henry Mwinuka. Pictures: FIBA

Reflecting on their 0-3 record in Group D, team captain Olivier Shyaka says the Rwandan team did not show up.

“Last year, we did not play well. We did not practice as hard as we needed to. We did not play with commitment. We were there physically, but we did not play with heart,” said Shyaka, who plays for REG Basketball Club in Rwanda.

Despite being one of the few countries on the continent to have had a basketball season, albeit a shortened one, the mileage should have been beneficial. Shyaka though holds a different view. In his opinion, the league season was not long enough for the selected national team players to be competitive.

“The bubble was not enough. We had not played for six months, and we only played in the bio-bubble for two weeks,” said Shyaka, who acknowledged that some teams were not as fortunate as Rwanda was to have a league. “I know that’s just an excuse because other countries were on lockdown too.”

Could the fact that Rwanda is hosting the upcoming tournament have played on the team’s psyche? Shyaka refutes the notion, saying it would have been disrespectful to the other teams in their group.

No, no, no. That is not possible. Then the other teams will not respect us. We have to try and win. Two or three games. The other teams needed to feel our presence. No matter what, whether you are hosting or not, we have to win. Just because we were hosts, does not mean we should have been there to only participate. We have to show that we want to win,” said the 25-year-old.

Following losses to group D opponents, Nigeria, South Sudan and Mali, Rwanda’s Serbian coach Vladimir Bosnjak stepped down. In his place, the national federation, Rwanda Basketball Federation (Ferwaba) hired caretaker coach Henry Mwinuka, who coaches REG Basketball Club.

Mwinuka’s appointment, according to Shyaka, has brought in an air of confidence in the team. Shyaka, believes his club coach, has great confidence in the players going to do battle for Rwanda.

“The way we train is different. Every coach has their style and vision. Henry Mwinuka maybe the acting coach, but he hates to lose. He demonstrates it in the way he pushes us at practice. The way he talks to us. The way he shows that he trusts us. He’s created an environment of togetherness. There’s a difference in the team,” said the power forward.

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Rwanda’s Olivier Shyaka says he and his teammates need to redeem themselves in Tunisia.

Despite Rwanda’s poor showing in the first leg of the qualifiers, Shyaka was one of their top performers, in terms of efficiency. The Rwanda captain, says his performances serve no benefit if the team is not winning.

“We play basketball as a team. If I play well, other players are inspired to play well too. I am helping them to be better on the court. However, if I don’t play well, it does not mean that my teammates should play badly. We should have each other’s backs. Last year that was not the case, we played as individuals. That is the first thing the new coach addressed,” said Shyaka.

Rwanda does not have the burden of being hosts for the final leg of the qualifiers. They head to Monastir, Tunisia (17 February-21 February) hoping to redeem themselves. Shyaka reiterated those sentiments and believes the wind of change has galvanised the team.

“We have been practising for three weeks. I can tell you we are in a good space as a team, unlike last year. We have been training hard. There’s a new level of commitment. There are new guys who the coach wants to give a chance to,” said Shyaka, who stated the team’s intention when they touchdown in Monastir. “We are going to Tunisia to fight. We are going to Tunisia to compete. More than before, we are committed.”

Change has come to the Rwandan team. A new coach. A change in attitude. And a promise to be competitive in Tunisia. Hopefully, the team’s performances in North Africa will befit a country seen, as a new hub for basketball on the continent.

Rwanda to raise their competitive bar in Tunisia Read More »

Mills believes Morans can punch above their weight

THE hard lockdown of Australia last year, due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, offered  basketball coach Liz Mills, who grew up in Sydney, time to take stock of her life.

On her reflections during the national lockdown, Mills realised that the break was necessary as she needed to learn to slow down. She also used the time to enhance her basketball knowledge.

“I did a lot of personal growth and professional growth last year. I learned a lot of lessons about slowing down. I took the time to re-evaluate certain things in my life. Basketball-wise I was able to attend online coaching courses and complete a basketball analytic course to solidify and continue to develop my skill-set in coaching,” said Mills, who holds a Master’s degree in her profession.

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Liz Mills believes the process towards winning is more interesting than the end result. Picture: FIBA

Armed with new knowledge in her craft, Mills, who regards Africa as a second home, is back and has already taken up a new challenge. Coaching the Kenya national team, the Morans, who are attempting to qualify for their first FIBA AfroBasket in 28 years.

Oh, definitely! It’s home away, from home. Every time I fly back, I am over-joyed to be here. Last year was difficult. It was the first time in nearly a decade that I had not been to Africa, sometime during the year,” said Mills, who takes over a Morans team at the halfway stage of the qualifiers of the tournament to be hosted by Rwanda (24 August-5 September).

Mills, who has coached in Zambia, Cameroon, and Rwanda, believes the Morans, snapped her up because of her technical expertise and experience in the continent.

“I consult with a lot of teams. Many national teams and clubs reach out to me, asking for advanced stats and film breakdowns. So, I have built a reputation for myself. The team manager, Mercine Milimu, reached out to me before the qualifiers started in Rwanda in November. She brought up the idea of me joining the Morans,” said Mills, who took over the reins from Cliff Owour.

The East African nation’s performance during the qualifiers of the first window, in Kigali, convinced Mills she had made the right choice in taking up the head coaching role.

“After watching them participate in Rwanda. I said to myself: ‘This team has potential’. I have been watching them since the AfroCan in 2019. They are a team on the rise. They are a team that’s an underdog, just like Australians. We are seen as underdogs all the time. But we fight well above our weight. So, it seemed like a natural fit. Once I got here I was given the head coaching role. I am excited to be working with this team,” said Mills.

 

 

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Kenya resume their group B qualifying campaign in Yaounde, Cameroon (February 19-February 21) with a 1-3 record, following a win over perennial qualifiers Mozambique and losses to powerhouses Angola and Senegal in the first window held in Kigali, Rwanda last year.

Mills is aware of the challenge that lies ahead for the Morans and has already gathered intelligence on Kenya’s opposition.

“Even though I was not able to coach in the first round of qualifiers, I do all the advanced stats for all the games. I am aware of what’s going on. I am very connected, regardless of whether I am coaching or not. It doesn’t feel like I am at a disadvantage, just because I am coming in now. I did not narrow in on a specific team, I was watching everybody, so I have a good grasp of how every team is playing especially in our group,” said Mills, who has high hopes for the Kenya basketball team in the second window.

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Liz Mills had time for some self-reflection during the lockdown in Australia. Pictures: FIBA and Frank Ogallo

“I think what’s exciting about this Morans team, is that they can play so much better than what they did in November. Their areas for improvement are so high. I think they have the capabilities to play at a better level. I don’t think there are many teams currently playing, who have that same level of improvement as the Morans.”

Kenya stands a good chance of qualifying and while arriving at that destination is important, Mills opined that the journey of getting there is just as critical.

“I think at the end of the day it’s about how much we can improve. We are not chasing wins. We are working on the process that can get us wins. We want to improve against Angola and Senegal. Reduce the margins of error. If we can get the win, that’s great. And of course, Mozambique is a team with a lot of experience, so we must respect them,” said Mills.

The Australian-born coach is also breaking new ground as a female head coach of a men’s team, a milestone she acknowledges.

“I’ve always been very warmly welcomed by the clubs and national teams I’ve worked with. Across the continent, I’ve been embraced by the basketball community, who have seen my dedication to growing the game here,” continued Mills.  “I’ve been lucky to work with clubs and national federations who are open-minded in terms of their hiring approach. I take being a role model very seriously and understand that young boys and girls need to see women in leadership positions. We need to provide intelligent, strong and independent female role models for the next generation of children growing up.”

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Silverbacks eager to rub shoulders with Africa’s elite

FOR the Uganda national team players and coach Mandy Juruni, there has been little rest. Juruni and his players did not enjoy much of a festive season as they have been hard at work, in attempting to qualify for their third FIBA Afrobasket in a row.

The Silverbacks, as the Uganda basketball team is known, has experienced growth under the tutelage of Juruni, who assumed the coaching role in 2014. And since his appointment, Uganda qualified for the 2015 and 2017 editions of the tournament.

Uganda will hope the toil and sacrifice, will again result in a ticket to the marquee continental event in Rwanda (24 August-5 September).

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Uganda coach Mandy Juruni knows the task ahead is still difficult. Pictures: FIBA

But before they can even think of the tournament itself, Uganda must negotiate their way through the qualification process. The Silverbacks head to Monastir, Tunisia for the second qualifying window (February 17-21), with a 3-2 record. They will have a measure of confidence after victories over group E opponents, Cape Verde and Morocco in the opening qualifying window, held in Egypt last year. The East African’s only loss came at the hands of the hosts.

As mentioned earlier, the reasoning for the extra work is that players need to remain motivated, as taking their eye off the ball can be costly. Another issue has also been the lack of action on the court, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a technical team, we sat down after the first window and decided we are not taking a lot of time off. We wanted to keep the boys engaged as there has not been competitive basketball in Uganda because of the pandemic,” said the 38-year-old Juruni. “We started training in the third week of December. We had a few days off during the Christmas break and got right back at it on the first week of January. “

While the lack of competitive basketball is lamentable, and Uganda’s defeat against Egypt showed as much. Juruni, who has won a combined 12 league titles in the men’s and women’s local league, will be buoyed by the two victories his team notched.

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Uganda’s Ishmael Wainright has been a go-to player in terms of scoring.

“It’s been difficult because in basketball, to be in good game shape, you have to compete. Just training only is not good enough. You have to play games,” said Juruni, who reflected on their first round of qualifiers. “Definitely in the first window, it was difficult for us, we had not played a competitive match since March. Our first competitive game was against Egypt. We gave it our best. At the end of the third quarter, we were still in the game. In the fourth quarter, we ran out of steam and lost focus. But in our next games, because we had played before, we were much better.”

The talents of American-born small forward, Ishmail Wainright, shooting guard Robinson Opong and point guard Jimmy Enabu, have helped put the Silverbacks’ qualifying destiny in their own hands. The scoring feats of Wainright (21.3 points per game), Opong (19.0 points per game) and Enabu (17.7 points per game) have been crucial to Uganda’s campaign. A factor Juruni acknowledges, but he also indicated that it would take more than the scoring ability of the trio to make it to the Afrobasket.

We are happy with the performances of those three. But for us to succeed, we will need more than that. We need everyone in the team to contribute positively. We believe the team that we have can do that. So we want our best players to continue playing well. We want the other seven or eight players to come on board as well. The more we contribute individually, the better it is for the team,” said the former point guard.

Juruni has ensured that his team does not rest on its laurels. He is also aware that the job is half-done, and familiar foes with similar desires stand in their way. The physical education teacher is well-versed with the above scenario after Uganda dropped the ball attempting to qualify for a major tournament.

“Our goal is to qualify for the Afrobasket. I know that it is not going to come easy. We have to work for it; we have to respect our opponents because they are good basketball nations. We have been in a situation like this in the World Cup qualifiers. We don’t want to be comfortable because we won two games. We want to train hard and have the best preparation possible to have a better campaign in the second window,” said Juruni, who coaches local club City Oilers.

It has not been ideal preparation for Uganda, but they have faced the challenge head-on. They will need to be resilient, tenacious and make the most of the advantage they hold if they are to rub shoulders with the continents elite basketball nations again.

Silverbacks eager to rub shoulders with Africa’s elite Read More »

Canivete ready to be counted on for Mozambique

FOR Mozambican two-way player David Canivete Jr being relied upon on to help the team to win basketball games is the feeling he’s missed a great deal. Due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in his home country, Canivete Jr like many other ballers couldn’t do what he loves most. And that is to play basketball.

Now that basketball activities have been allowed to resume by the government of that country, Canivete and his teammates have been hard at work preparing for the colossal task waiting in Kigali, Rwanda. Mozambique will face African giants Angola, Senegal and a Kenya Morans team on the rise, in the FIBA Afrobasket qualifiers from 25-29 November.

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David Canivete Jr aims help maintain Mozambique’s tradition of qualifying for the AfroBasket. Pictures: FIBA

The ambition for Mozambique is to punch in their ticket for next years Afrobasket tournament on 24 August – 5 September, also in Kigali.

But, it is jumping the hurdle of a tough Group B that Mozambique have to negotiate first. And Canivete Jr will be one of the players his country calls on to help in this endeavour.

“I missed the fact that people can count me. The fact that I can help my teammates and my coach win games. I miss the fans as well because it is for them we play. But, I have missed the feeling of being that player the team can count on,” said the Ferroviario de Maputo player reflecting on his time away from the court.

Heading into the qualifying campaign Canivete Jr, fancies Mozambique’s chances of qualifying for the Afrobasket, because most players playing in the continent have been inactive. So, the qualifiers will serve as a first taste of competitive action for most players, since the lifting of national lockdown restrictions in their respective countries.

I don’t think many of us have played competitive basketball. Probably players from Senegal, who play overseas will have the advantage because their team comprises guys that play outside of that country. And the leagues overseas have resumed. So our hope is, to at least win two games against Angola and Kenya. But they are also in an equally good position to qualify,” said the 31-year-old, who pointed out that playing the qualifiers at a neutral venue (Kigali Arena bio bubble) has it’s pros and cons.
“If we win all our games, that would be good because none of the teams has the home-court advantage. It’s a disadvantage as well because you don’t get to play in front of your home fans.”

Despite the long stretch without any competitive basketball, Canivete maintains Mozambique has good shot at qualifying. His optimism stems from the fact that the bulk of the team will come from Ferroviario de Maputo side that had been preparing for the Basketball Africa League tournament, postponed to 2021.

 

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“We are in good shape because we have been practising for two or three months. My club was the only one practising here in Mozambique. We had an international competition, so we were allowed to prepare for that. So, there’s a good core to work with. Also included are two players from the Beira club, and we are expecting two players from Portugal,” said Canivete Jr, who has played in South Africa for the Phenomenal Phenoms.

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David Canivete, far left, poses with his teammates during the 2017 Afrobasket.

A seasoned campaigner in international competition, Canivete Jr is always ready to don  Mozambican vest. The experience he will add to Mozambique’s campaign will surely valuable.

“It’s a pleasure to play for the national team. It’s an honour for me to play alongside good players inside and outside of Mozambique. It means I am doing something right. I am staying shape and ready to represent my country. I hope that my experience will help the team. If we qualify, it will be my sixth Afrobasket. So, I am hoping to keep fit and healthy to help the team achieve this goal. I am going to give my blood and sweat. I will leave it all on the court,” said Canivete.

Mozambique will need Canivete’s and his teammate’s blood and sweat, and maybe some more to overcome their Group D opponents. And trying to maintain their tradition of being regular participants in the Afrobasket, they should spare no inch. It will be a tough group for Mozambique to navigate, but in overcoming the obstacles the taste of the promised land will be that sweeter.

Canivete ready to be counted on for Mozambique Read More »

Can Kenya’s Morans rise from obscurity?

FOR Ariel Okall, taking to the basketball court in the colours of the Kenya Morans (national team) will carry a special meaning, when they attempt to qualify for next year’s Afrobasket tournament to be hosted by Rwanda.

Firstly, after 27 years of being a basketball afterthought, Kenya will attempt to qualify for the FIBA Afrobasket tournament in Kigali from 24 August – 5 September 2021. Secondly, Okall wants to continue the family legacy of athletes participating at the highest level.

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Kenya Morans forward Ariel Okall wants to continue a proud family legacy. Picture: FIBA

Okall’s father, Elijah Koranga, a former footballer, was part of the Harambee Stars team that participated in the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations. Okall’s journey to matching his father’s feats will begin at the Afrobasket qualifiers, also taking place in Kigali from 25 November – 29 November 2020. Kigali has prepared for the upcoming tournaments, in context of Covid-19 restrictions, by designating a bio-bubble at the Kigali arena.

“I want to compete. My father played in the Africa Cup of Nations with the Kenya football team. So, if we qualify for the Afrobasket, I will be at the same level as my father. If I don’t, he will still have that advantage over me. I want to qualify so badly so that he doesn’t have to brag that he’s the only one in the family that has competed at international level. It’s a matter of destiny. A matter of legacy.” said Okall, who is currently at camp with the team in Nairobi.

The forward believes that this group of Morans players can write their history in Kenyan basketball lore by ending almost three decades of basketball obscurity.

The ultimate goal is to qualify for Rwanda next year. It is the closest we have come to qualifying, after 27 years. We don’t want to take this chance for granted. We always say the Morans are about finishing their food. The coaches have given us everything we need. All that’s left is for us to finish the job,” said the 30-year-old.

Kenya put the African continent on notice after reaching the final of the AfroCan tournament in Mali last year, where they lost to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite this achievement, Okall maintained that the Morans are underdogs going into the Afrobasket qualifying tournament. He also held the view that they are a closed book to their more esteemed Group B opponents, Senegal, Angola and Mozambique.

“Definitely. We are the underdogs. And in Bamako, Mali we were the underdogs. We play better when we are in that position,” said Okall, who feels the Morans will know what to expect come tip-off time.

“Some of the players, playing in these teams, we look up to them. So, it’s going to be an achievement playing against players we have been watching for so many years,” said Okall who went on to break down what he’ll be expecting from what looks like the group of death.

“From all four teams, it’s going to be a battle size. If you look at the Senegalese, they have a great deal of height in their squad and Angola too. They also have a culture of winning.”

Okall will be familiar with Mozambique as he was part of the Morans team that played them in the four nations tournament held in South Africa in 2015.

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Ariel Okall believes the Morans will be a closed book to their Group B opponents. Picture: FIBA

“We played against them in the four nations tournament in South Africa and lost to them. They play the same type of basketball as Kenya, but the only advantage they have is they regularly participate in Africa’s biggest stage, so we have to take them seriously. We have to prepare well before we meet them. They have tournament experience, so you can’t take them for granted,” said Okall, who has played basketball in Oman and Seychelles.

The Morans also have the benefit of having the core of the team that participated in AfroCan tournament. While there will be a lot of rusty legs in the team due to inactivity because the global COVID-19 restrictions, Okall believes the continuity will bode well for the Morans.

“The mood in the camp is awesome. The core of the team is still intact. We don’t have to start from square one. We have been together for over two years we know each other well. Things are easy for us. There are three or four guys, who are new to the team,” said Okall.

 

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“Physically, the impact (of COVID-19 lockdown) is visible because the leagues had shutdown. Guys have been affected in terms of game shape and game awareness. The coaches have worked with us to improve our conditioning. The guys are mentally strong, and in the coming days, we will be at a higher level. The good thing is that all teams competing in the qualifiers have also had their leagues closed because of lockdowns in the respective countries.

“The only positive is that the professional players that will be coming have probably played leagues where basketball was allowed to resume. That will be an X-factor. But for the local players, it’s going to be tough on them,” concluded Okall.

The Morans, named after the famed Maasai tribe warriors will head to these qualifiers knowing they have nothing to lose. They have made a giant leap in African basketball and already sharpened by earlier wins for the test that awaits. Can they in the coming weeks elevate themselves and etch their names in Kenyan basketball lore?

Can Kenya’s Morans rise from obscurity? Read More »

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