Liz Mills

Are Bangui Sporting Club ready to turn heads in BAL debut?

BANGUI Sporting Club heads into Season 4 of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) and will look to turn heads in their debut season. The Big Tip Off previews Bangui ahead of the BAL.

Team: Bangui Sporting Club

Country: Central African Republic (CAR)

History: The Central African side was founded in 2017 and was previously known as GIBA-BCAG until 2022. Founded by former national team player Cyrille Damango, the Bangui Club, who are based in CAR’s capital city (Bangui), has built a good history. The team plays in the Bangui Basketball League, where they were runners-up in 2021. Their crowning moment first came in 2022, and they repeated that feat the following year. Despite being a relatively new team, they already established themselves as a powerhouse in Central Africa.

Bangui Sporting Club at The Road To BAL 2024
Bangui’s Evans Ganapamo (1) and Liz Mills bring BAL experience to the CAR club. Picture: FIBA Africa

Route to BAL: After defending their national championship, they headed to Yaoundé, Cameroon, for the Road To BAL Division West qualifiers. They did not have the best of starts, losing to the Gabonese side Espoir. Eventually, they (Bangui) would bounce back in the group stages. Bangui would eventually claim the Division West title, which booked their spot in the fourth edition of the BAL.

Coach: Australian coach Liz Mills will lead Bangui Sporting in their quest to make a name for themselves on the continent. Teams led by Mills have gone past the first round in the BAL, so Bangui is in good hands. Hopefully, in the process, she can turn them into a contender. Mills, a former coach of Kenya and Zambia, has led AS Salé (Morocco) and ABC Fighters (Cote D’Ivoire) in the last two instalments of the BAL. She is not afraid to bet on African talent, as was the case when she led ABC to last year’s BAL playoffs.

Star player: Evans Ganapamo is the star player for the Bangui side. He has already donned the national team colours and is playing in the BAL for a club from his home country for the first time. In the past two instalments of the BAL he played with the Cape Town Tigers of South Africa. During the Road to BAL qualifiers with Bangui, he established himself as one of the best scorers on the continent,  averaging 17.8ppg in the West Division. He will be looking to lead his team to silverware whilst becoming a household name on the continent.

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Mills spells out ABC’s BAL aspirations

WHEN season three of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) tips off in Dakar, Senegal, on Saturday, ABC Fighters coach Liz Mills will have a singular goal in mind. That is to restore Cote d’Ivoire’s most successful club’s image on the continent.

In the early 2000s, ABC enjoyed a period of success in the defunct FIBA Africa Clubs Champions Cup. Their crowning moment was becoming champions of the tournament in 2005, and on either side of their trophy win, they captured silver (2004) and bronze (2007). Since then ABC have been unable to replicate or come near those feats in continental basketball.

Liz Mills
Liz Mills believes Fighters will surprise many at the BAL. Picture: Supplied

While Mills, who spoke to The Big Tip Off on Thursday, acknowledged the club’s past glory days at the continental level, she knows her team can write a new chapter for themselves in their debut season at the BAL.

“They have always been a competitive team, but it’s been a while since they have been back at this level. I want to put this team back on the continental map. This club has a long history. I think they deserve to be spoken about in a more revered manner,” said Australia-born Mills.

Initially, Mills took a coy tone about the ambition of the 20-time Ivorian league champions ahead of the BAL tournament.

“We are flying under the radar. People are not saying we are favourites or a team to look out for. I think that is to our advantage. I think we are going to surprise a lot of people,” said Mills, who made her BAL debut as coach of AS Sale last year.

But the question is, are the Fighters a closed book and do they have the element of surprise on their side?

The question emanates from the fact that the Abidjan based-club won the Road To BAL Division West qualifiers last year, which culminated in qualification to the BAL. Mills’ milestones in the African game have also not gone unnoticed, so she and ABC would surely be hard to miss.

Mills, who has been impressed by the ABC players, says that things have changed in the team since the Road To BAL qualifiers, and she may have a trick or two up her sleeve at the tournament.

“It’s a different team, and we play differently compared to how the team played last year in the qualifiers. Credit must go to the local players. In the last six weeks they have grasped many new concepts and systems. They have exceeded my expectations,” said Mills, who took over the coaching reins after ABC qualified for the BAL. “People can go back and watch films of previous games, but that is not what we will show on the court. What I can say is, we will be an exciting team to watch.”

 

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With players like veteran leader Stéphane Konaté, Nigerian big man Chris Obekpa, shooting guard Abdoulaye Harouna  (Niger), Chudier Bile (South Sudan) and American point guard Alex Robinson in their line-up, ABC look like they will serve up some mouth-watering basketball.

Mills spoke glowingly about the value add of Ivorian international Konaté and the newcomers to the team.

“When I was recruiting for ABC, my priority was to sign players of high character. The four players that we brought in, Abdoulaye Harouna, Chris Obekpa, Chudier Bile and Alex Robinson, fit that mould and are defence-orientated. You can’t win at the BAL if you do not have players who can play defence,” said Mills. “Having a leader like Stéphane Konaté is an honour and a pleasure. His experience and leadership made my arrival as a coach seamless. He is also the bridge between the players and the coaches.

“The chemistry that we have built in the short time we have been together is because of him.”

Stephane Konate
Stephane Konate’s leadership according to Liz Mills has been pivotal for ABC. Picture: FIBA

ABC are in the Sahara Conference group along with last year’s champions US Monastir (Tunisia).  AS Douanes (Senegal), Kwara Falcons (Nigeria), Rwanda Energy Group and Stade Malien (Mali) complete the group.

Looking at the Sahara Conference, the favourites to make it out of the group would be Monastir. After that, it’s left to the other four teams to battle it out for the remaining three playoff spots.

Mills also agreed that ABC’s group is a fairly open one.

“You have to respect that Monastir are the defending champions. But what makes this Conference exciting is that it is an open race. I think you might see some upsets in this group. Some teams are already talking about titles. For us, our first target is the playoffs,” said Mills, whose team takes on Douanes on opening night.

“We are excited to kick off the season against the hosts. We expect a great crowd. Also, there is a rivalry between the Ivorians and Senegalese, so it will make things interesting. We are confident heading into that game.”

As Mills plots ABC’s path to restoration, she knows that when the curtains open for BAL season three, only victory can return the giant Ivorian club to the continental map.

* To see fixtures click here

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Ground-breaking Liz Mills eyes BAL glory for AS Sale

THROUGHOUT her time on the African continent, Australia-born Liz Mills has successfully rocked long established traditions in the coaching sphere.

Mills, who has spent over a decade coaching in Africa, has made significant inroads while coaching mostly men’s teams. In the process she achieved major milestones, including as Kenya Morans coach and now in her new role as coach of Moroccan club A.S. Sale.

The former Morans coach, who spoke to The Big Tip Off via Zoom on Monday, became the first woman to qualify and lead a men’s national team to international competition last year. While Mills and Kenya have since gone their separate ways, she reflected on what was a fulfilling time for her.

“It was an exciting, rewarding but also challenging journey. A year ago, I was with the Morans, a team that had not seen the AfroBasket for 28 years. When we qualified, it was a historic moment. Not just for myself as a woman, but for Kenya as a whole. Being able to help them achieve a goal they set in 2019 and leading them to the tournament was rewarding,” said Mills, who felt the eyes of the world on her during the tournament in Rwanda.

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Former Morans coach Liz Mills in discussion with Nigeria coach Mike Brown. Pictures: FIBA

“I also understood the significance of the occasion. That weighed heavily on me, understanding that I am representing female coaches in the way I carried myself, and how the team performed. It felt like I was always under scrutiny. It was constantly on my mind. I wanted to represent female coaches to the best of my ability. I wanted to make them proud when they saw me leading the way with Kenya.”

Mills would eventually lead the Morans to the playoff round at the AfroBasket, but her time with the East African team came to a surprising end early this year. Both parties have since moved on. While she regards the chapter on the Kenya national team as closed, she still has interest in coaching national teams.

“I knew straight after the AfroBasket I had achieved everything I had wanted with Kenya. I was happy with the time I spent there and to have been a part of their journey, but it was time for me to move on. I’m not shutting the door on working with any team. For the second window of the world cup qualifiers I am available, but my time with Kenya is over. We were going in different directions,” said the A.S. Sale coach, who will become the first woman to lead a team to the Basketball Africa League competition, which tips off on March 5.

It’s not the first time Mills has had contact with the Moroccan Division Excellence club. She initially got in touch with Sale, ahead of the inaugural BAL tournament, but nothing concrete materialised.

“I had reached to Sale two years ago. We tried to work out a way for me to come and coach there. Unfortunately, things did not work either from their side or mine. I was supposed to coach them for the first BAL tournament last year. In the end, it just did not work out,” said the Mills, the first female head coach of Sale.

“Coaching Sale is ground-breaking. There has never been a woman head coach at a North African men’s team at the national or club level. Also, when Sale heads to the BAL, I will be the first woman to lead a men’s team to that tournament. So, I am breaking the barriers as I go along.”

 

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Apart from achieving career landmarks, joining the 2017 African club champions is a level up for Mills. She feels the team has good management, and their reputation on the continent speaks volumes.

“I wanted a new challenge and to coach a more experienced team, who are also more professional in their approach. A club like A.S. Sale is a prestigious, successful and historic club in Africa. I have also worked a lot in sub-Saharan Africa, so crossing over to the north to engage with a different style of play is something I needed to do as a coach,” said Mills, who will lead Sale to their second BAL appearance.

The former Patriots Basketball Club (Rwanda) assistant coach was also impressed with the talent pool available to Sale for this year’s campaign.

“Any opportunity to work with players of this calibre, be it at the national league or BAL, would be a good experience for myself as a coach. We have great veteran players and a good core of young players coming up, which is exciting for me,” said Mills, whose team imported three lethal scoring weapons and have BAL experience.

The addition of American combo guard Terrell Stoglin, shooting guard Abdoulaye Harouna of Niger and Spanish power forward Alvaro Masa make for an impressive arsenal. Taking the final slot is Kenyan small forward Albert Odero. Sale also have some good local stand out players like veterans Zakaria El Mabashi (guard) and Najah Abderrahim (forward), who Mills holds in high regard.

“We have Zakaria who is a legend on the continent. He is the Eduardo Mingas of Moroccan basketball. He is a sharp shooter. At 42 he has done well to take care of his body. He will do a great job for us coming off the bench. There is also Najah. I think he was the MVP of club championships in 2017. He is also one of the best power forwards in Africa,” said Mills. “The club had already brought in their imports before I got here. I am pleased with them. Terrell, Abdoulaye and Alvaro were the leading scores in the BAL. So we have some firepower. I coached Albert during my time with the Morans. There is a nice mix of offensive talent and defensive stoppers.”

Mills also spoke highly of the eight-time Division Excellence winners’ chances of seizing this year’s BAL title. “This team has a history of success at this level. We aim to win the BAL. That is our goal. We will not be satisfied unless we go out and win the BAL.”

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Liz Mills is confident Sale can go all the way in the BAL tournament.

Before Sale can even think of winning the BAL tournament, they will first have to navigate their way past a tough Sahara Conference group.

Last year’s finalists U.S. Monastir (Tunisia), are favourites to win the group. Meanwhile five other teams, in the form of Rwanda Energy Group (REG) BBC, Dakar Universite Club (DUC) Basketball, Seydou Legacy Athletique Club (Guinea) and Ferroviario da Beira (Mozambique) are dark horses and will look to stand in the way of Sale.

Mills says their group presents a stiff challenge and that whichever team progresses will be better equipped to withstand the knockout stages.

“I think we are in the much harder conference. It’s a great thing because if you can get wins in this group, then the first crossover in the quarter-finals will be a bit easier. After all, the games were much harder,” said Mills, who looks forward to the battle against the Tunisians. “Monastir is the favourite. Most of the players compete for the Tunisian national team. That’s a match-up that excites us. It’s also a great measuring stick for us.”

Mills has already cemented herself in basketball lore for breaking barriers, but she is not one to be content. Her new coaching assignment has heightened her ambition. As she gets ready to steer the A.S. Sale ship, would it be far off the mark to imagine the promised land lies in wait for her?

Ground-breaking Liz Mills eyes BAL glory for AS Sale 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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BAL break an opportunity for teams to re-strategise

Mills hopes BAL dream will resume

SINCE the completion of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) Qualifiers in December 2019, when I assisted Rwandan club, Patriots BBC to the BAL East Division qualification title, there has been an immense sense of excitement from players, coaches, management and fans for the first season of the BAL.

After leaving Patriots, I had the opportunity to move to a power house club* that had automatically qualified for the first season of the BAL season. I was eagerly awaiting our first games in Dakar, Senegal when on March 4 2020, but the league was suspended due to COVID-19. Having spent the last couple of weeks preparing film, scouting reports, analytics & training sessions, I, along with all the teams and fans, was extremely disappointed that the league would not go ahead, especially as my team was considered one of the favourites to win the first season of the league. However, the decision made by the BAL executive team, proved to be the right decision, keeping the safety of the teams and fans as top priorities.

Liz Mills during her time at Patriots: Pictures: FIBA and Frank Ogallo

Through my coaching career in Africa, I’ve been able to build a network of coaches, players and managers, which means I’m in a unique position to be able to speak to players and/or coaches in all the teams that would have been competing in the 2020 BAL. Although, initially everyone was disappointed that the league was unable to start in March, there was and continues to be a sense of hope that the league will be able to run later this year. We are anxiously waiting to hear any updates from the BAL executive team. If they are unable to run the first addition of the league, I’d love to see them at least host a tournament for the 2020 BAL teams.

A two-week tournament, similar to FIBA AfroBasket, where one country hosts, and allows the 12 teams the opportunity to compete for the 2020 title. This would facilitate that the 2021 qualifications go on as planned for that season.

On a more positive note, with the league being postponed, it has given teams more time to prepare, enabling them to re-evaluate and re-strategise for the upcoming season. Team managers now have more time to bring on sponsors and scout players, while coaches can continue to build on their strategies and develop their players. The additional time also gives players the opportunity to work on their skills at home and evaluate their own performance by watching film. Whilst there is no date set for the BAL 2020 season, it is important for players to remember that they still have an opportunity to play for their national team for the upcoming 2021 FIBA AfroBasket Qualifiers in November 2020 and February 2021. Staying fit and healthy should be a priority during COVID-19.

Although currently back home in Sydney, Australia, I look forward to returning to Africa when basketball resumes later this year. During COVID-19, I hope everyone stays at home, stays safe and remain healthy.

*Confidential due to ongoing contract re-negotiations.

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