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Nigeria's Uzoh: ''Playing in front of home fans was an unbelievable feeling''
LAGOS (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 African Qualifiers) - Nigeria roared into the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 with a 9-0 record in the African Qualifiers. Ben Uzoh believes the team has set the blueprint to finish its qualifying group in first place and prepare for China 2019.
Nigeria finished off the third Qualifiers window with three wins at home, beating Cote d’Ivoire 84-73, Central African Republic 114-69 and then brushing aside Senegal 89-61 in Lagos. The win over second-placed Senegal was particularly important and impressive, given that Nigeria jumped ahead 27-14 after 10 minutes and rolled to a 28-point win.
"A big start is very important especially with the magnitude of the game. We respect Senegal, but as a unit we wanted to send a message and make a statement on our home floor," said Uzoh, who had 9 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists in the game against Senegal, which pushed Nigeria’s record in Group F to 9-0 and Senegal's to 7-2.
Uzoh has played in all three windows thus far and the push forward in the team is clear.
"Having played in all three windows I definitely have seen a development and growth of our team. I feel our federation has done a solid job of putting together a competitive roster for all the three windows. Every player should feel very much a part of helping punch our ticket to China," he explained.
Uzoh, who has averaged 9.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.3 steals in nine Qualifiers games, believes the latest window showed Nigeria quite a bit looking forward to the last group of games in February, when they will face Cote d’Ivoire, CAF and Senegal for a second time.
"HAVING PLAYED IN ALL THREE WINDOWS I DEFINITELY HAVE SEEN A DEVELOPMENT AND GROWTH OF OUR TEAM."
"As a team and federation we learned how quickly we can come together, accept roles and build chemistry. This is a blueprint that we can follow into the next window and the time leading closer to the World Cup," the 30-year-old Uzoh said.
Nigeria in September clinched their spot in China 2019, ending a World Cup drought that dates back to 2006.
"It's a true honor to return the World Cup and represent Nigeria after such a long time," said Uzoh, who helped Nigeria win the FIBA AfroBasket 2015 title and play at the Men’s Olympic Basketball Tournament 2016.
"It has a great deal of importance not only to Nigeria but to the continent of Africa as a whole. Nigeria is spearheading the continual growth of basketball for the continent in both our senior women’s and men’s teams."
The 6ft 3in (1.91m) point guard said he would love to play in his second global competition next summer.
"For me as a competitor, you always want to play and be among the best competition. To share another global stage with best of the best is everything," said Uzoh, who averaged 7.4 points, 2.6 assists and 1.4 rebounds at the 2016 Olympics.
Uzoh said clinching the World Cup berth at home also had a major meaning for Nigeria.
"Playing in front of home fans was an unbelievable feeling. Nigeria has never hosted a basketball event of this level. So, to celebrate such a feat with my brothers (teammates) and home fans, it was everything," he said.
"IT'S A TRUE HONOR TO RETURN TO THE WORLD CUP AND REPRESENT NIGERIA AFTER SUCH A LONG TIME. IT HAS A GREAT DEAL OF IMPORTANCE NOT ONLY TO NIGERIA BUT TO THE CONTINENT OF AFRICA AS A WHOLE."
Uzoh was born in Houston, Texas in the United States. But both of his parents were raised in Lagos. So playing the June-July and September windows in the Nigerian capital also had a special feeling.
"My parents are extremely proud that I have opportunity to represent Nigeria by playing in the national team. But to actually play in Lagos for them, definitely holds a stronger meaning.
"I understand it allows me time to get more cultured and connect with family that I haven’t connected with in some time. I definitely had family at the games cheering us on," he said.
Ben Uzoh (middle) got to celebrate Nigeria clinching their spot in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in front of family in Lagos.
The main goal of grabbing a spot in the World Cup has been accomplished. But Uzoh and Nigeria are not finished.
"The next window in February is around the corner and finishing first in the group is very much within reach. Our collective goal is to stay the course and finish up as strong as possible," he added.
The blueprint is there in place.