FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments

Ogoke talks D’Tigress journey and Olympic Games quest

SARAH Ogoke’s journey with Nigeria’s D’Tigress started 13 years ago (2011) when she was a junior in college. She received a call-up to represent Nigeria in the Women’s AfroBasket in Mali, and from there, she has been part of building the D’Tigress into a powerhouse.

Although Nigeria finished the AfroBasket in fourth place that year, the experience marked her journey towards winning four consecutive AfroBasket titles (from 2017).

The already accomplished Ogoke now has the potential to achieve another milestone with the D’Tigress – becoming an Olympian. Ogoke and Nigeria are on a quest for a ticket to this year’s Olympic Games in Paris. Their journey to Paris begins at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which tipped off in Antwerp, Belgium on Thursday.

In an interview with The Big Tip Off, American-born Ogoke discusses her experience as a D’Tigress, captaining the team, the upcoming Olympic Qualifiers, and their ambitions.

Nigeria's D'Tigresses
Sarah Ogoke (7, extreme right) will lead the D’Tigresses in the quest for an Olympic ticket. Pictures: FIBA

Ogoke, spent most of her youth in Nigeria, even attending nursery school there. Although growing up in the States, she frequently visited the West African nation during summers and Christmas holidays.

“I always wanted to have that opportunity to represent my homeland. When I got that call-up, I was extremely proud and excited to represent my country,” said Ogoke.

When the national team call-up arrived (in 2011), Ogoke achieved one of her dreams. At the time, she was the only college player on the team, with all her teammates being professionals. She found it very encouraging. Since then, the team improved with each tournament.

The team’s progress runs parallel to her personal growth. She is currently studying for her PhD in at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine

“You know, I would say in my first three AfroBaskets we just got closer and closer to winning. In 2017 came first… From there it has been a consistent climb for the program,” said the Ogoke 33-year-old. “We just keep getting better and better.”

Ogoke acknowledges balancing a demanding academic and athletic schedule is like walking a tightrope.

“Its been everything. Its been extremely important. I played Division One basketball and I was a biology major. So believe it or not, I’ve been juggling high-level athletics and intense high level academics for a long, long time. I won’t say its been easy, but its not something new to me. I’ve been doing this since I was like 17 or 18 years old,” said Ogoke, winner of the 2019 FIBA African Women’s Champions Cup with Mozambique’s Ferroviario de Maputo.

She recently took on the high-pressure job of captaining Nigeria. A role she accepted ahead of last year’s AfroBasket in Rwanda. Ogoke would lead the team to the title, a process she feels brought on a different accountability.

“I take a lot of pride in being the captain. Being the veteran on the team, I have to lead and be the best example for the younger players on the team,” said Ogoke.

“I would say I have always been relevant to the team, but once attaining that captain status, it gave me a lot of confidence to show up… Especially as a veteran.

“I cannot rely on anyone else. As a former role player, I was able to win titles, but now that I have the captain status, the responsibility for winning or losing falls solely on me. Therefore, I took this responsibility very seriously and did my best to help the team achieve our goals.”

 

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While she (Ogoke) led on the floor during the championship run, Rena Wakama called the shots from the bench. Wakama became the youngest and first female coach that the federation appointed. She was also the first female coach to win the AfroBasket.

“It’s been phenomenal, Coach Rena knows how to get us going, to motivate us, she can relate to us,” said the shooting guard.

Ogoke had high praise for Wakama’s leadership of the team.

“She is a woman. She is young, so it is like playing with a friend, or a big sister,” says Ogoke. “I feel like it made us much closer because she is much more relatable to us being a young woman. It’s been an absolute pleasure and joy playing for her.”

The D’Tigress arrived in Belgium four days before the start of The Qualifying Tournament – a similar situation to the 2023 AfroBasket. As a result, they have had limited time to prepare. Despite this challenge, they have created a team DNA of being undeterred.

“Nigerians are naturally perseverant, naturally prone to just getting things done regardless of our circumstances,” says Ogoke. “This is a young team but this team is extremely mature as well, we never make excuses and we always do our best to make the best the best out of everything we’re given.”

D'Tigresses
Sarah Ogoke holds AfroBasket winning coach team coach Rena Wakama in high regard.

D’Tigress began their Olympics campaign against a familiar foe, Senegal, whom they beat to clinch their fourth AfroBasket title. Nigeria won the match 72- 65. Ogoke, who scored 11 points and dished out five dimes, was complimentary of their West African neighbours ahead of the game.

“Senegal is a great team, they take a lot of pride in their program. They can’t be taken lightly, only our best we will do,” said Ogoke. “They have solid team, with a new coach (Alberto Antuna) so we’re gonna go in and do our absolute best and play hard.”

The Nigerian team will play the USA on Friday and Belgium on Sunday. Two tickets are available for their group, so winning at least one match improves their chances of qualifying for the Olympics.

“The main thing is that this is an opportunity that may never come again, there is only ever gonna be one Paris 2024 Olympics,” said Ogoke. “This is our chance to capture a ticket and become Olympians… To sew our name in sports history for all of eternity. So we have to go there understanding what is at stake and give it our all.”

Ogoke and D’Tigress have their work cut out for them, but they have risen to the occasion before, even when conditions don’t favour them.

With a ticket to Paris at stake, you can be sure the D’Tigress will have the tenacity and will to get the job done.

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Antuña adapting and fine tuning Senegal for Olympic qualifiers

WHEN Alberto Antuña arrived in Africa to take on the role of head coach for the Ugandan national women’s team, he learned one of the most important lessons in his first year on the continent: You cannot be too rigid in your ways and must be able to adapt quickly.

The lesson came after a loss to Kenya last year during the FIBA AfroBasket qualifiers. From that point, Antuña’s perspective changed.

He recalls the first game he coached (against Kenya). Many ideas flowed in his head, and he tried to implement them all, resulting in the loss. The experience made him realise he had to adapt and that pride had no place in winning.

Antuña is an experienced coach who has worked across Europe in the club circuit and at the national team level. After leading Uganda’s Gazelles at the 2023 FIBA Afrobasket in Rwanda, he landed Senegal’s women’s team head coach position.

In an interview with The Big Tip Off, Antuña discussed his time with the Gazelles, his new position with Senegal, and his hopes for their upcoming Olympic qualifying campaign.

Antuña’s appointment as coach of the Gazelles was not in the cards for him until just a few months before the February 2023 FIBA Afrobasket qualifiers.

“I honestly did not expect it,” recalls Antuña. “I remember in November of 2022, I was in the middle of the Eurobasket qualifiers with the national team of Montenegro. The president of the (Uganda) federation emailed me to inquire about my availability. He told me about the idea of me taking the head coach position in Uganda to work towards the qualifiers for the (2023) Afrobasket.”

Alberto Antuna with Uganda's national team.
Alberto Antuña says he coached one Uganda’s best generations of players at last year’s AfroBasket in Rwanda. Pictures: FIBA

Antua agreed to take the job after positive discussions with the FUBA… And the rest, as they say, is history.

Antuña feels fortunate to have had a team that was receptive and ready to learn with very little time for preparation. He considers that group of players as the best generation the East African nation has produced.

“The team had a really good connection and the girls trusted that we had a chance to win. That gave us the chance to compete and that’s how I managed in that first game against Mali. We competed well and secured a big win,” said Antuña. “That win, along with our victory against Senegal made it clear to the group that we were a different team. We were ready to compete every time we stepped on the court.”

During his tenure as coach of the Gazelles, Antuña led the team to six victories out of 11 games. It was their best performance yet, placing them seventh in Afrobasket. Despite the team’s success, Antuña announced his departure shortly after Afrobasket. He believed that leaving would be in his best interests and that of the Ugandan team.

The Spaniard explained, “I made the decision a few weeks after Afrobasket, and it wasn’t due to any issue with the federation. I chose to leave because the next competition would be in early 2025… That would be too much time before the next competition. I am very young and still very driven, so I want to be competing and managing teams.”

After his departure, Antuña admits he had no offers from other national teams. When Senegal parted ways with Moustapha Gaye after finishing second behind Nigeria in the AfroBasket, Antuña seized the initiative and contacted the West African nation’s federation.

“After my time with the Gazelles came to an end, I reached out to Senegal,” said Antuña. “I saw that they were looking for a coach and I was free [now] and ready to lead the team. I am also familiar with them, I know the talent that they possess because some of their players play in Europe and Spain especially.”

 

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Antuña’s first order of duty will be leading Senegal at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Antwerp, Belgium (8 February – 11 February). He will not have much time with the team because of the players’ club commitments.

The Movistar Estudiantes coach says his priority will be on-court preparations and building connections with players. He has already made contact with some of the Senegal team players.

The Lionesses will face off against familiar foes Nigeria, the USA, and Belgium. Despite the magnitude of the assignment, Antuña looks forward to the competition and the opening game against Nigeria. 

“I think everyone knows that the big game for us is the one against Nigeria. It is the first game, the most important game, and probably the one I am putting a lot of focus on, in terms of scouting, analysing the players, and understanding the way they coach,” said Antuña.

Senegal have appeared in two Olympic Games, the first in 2000 and the second in 2016. In their two appearances, they finished in 12th place. Can Antuña lead them to a third appearance later this year (26 July – 11 August) in Paris, France?

Alberto Antuna during the AfroBasket
Alberto Antuna believes Senegal will be competitive at the Olympic Qualifiers.

Beyond the Qualifiers, Antuña is committed to working alongside the Senegalese federation to make The Lionesses synonymous with success again.

“I want to make Senegal successful. I want to grow with them. Senegal has been the best in the history of women’s basketball on the continent but obviously, in the last 10 years Nigeria has been dominating,” says Antuña. “My goal is to end that reign. I have to build the best team possible for us to compete in the big tournaments like The Olympics and the World Cup, but it won’t be easy.”

As a coach, he wishes to continue his personal growth. He wants to develop his coaching style and adapt to each situation.

“Although I have gained experience over the past eight years, I am still a young coach. I am determined to prove myself by coaching in various countries and coaching styles. This will not only make me a better coach, but also a better person. It will also demonstrate my ability to adapt to different cultures and nations,” said Antuña.

As he takes on his new role as Senegal’s coach, he faces a new challenge with a team he believes has immense talent. However, with his experience and expertise, there is no doubt he’ll help the Lionesses in their quest to secure a spot at the Olympics.

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