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AfroBasket Women learning process for Scott Nnaji
SHEFFIELD (Julio Chitunda's African Message) - It's been almost two years since I witnessed Nigeria concede a heartbroking 77-74 Quarterfinal defeat against hosts Mozambique at AfroBasket Women 2013 in Maputo, and I still feel that they had everything to advance to the Semi-Finals, apart from an unacceptable coaching mistake when it mattered most.
That game should have been a big disappointment for the hosts, but basketball Gods protected Mozambique who managed to turn things around when few believed they could.
IF Nigeria head coach Scott Nnaji had had the power to scream louder than the sellout crowd at Maxaquene Gym, the history of the tournament - which qualified two African teams for the 2014 FIBA Women's World Championship, could have been different.
Nigeria rallied from a 16-point deficit in the first half to take the lead in the second.
Then, inexplicably, a power cut inside the gymnasium lasted over 15 minutes, changing the rhythm of the game.
Still, Nigeria led 74-71 led with 35 seconds remaining when Mozambican Valerdina Manhonga hit a three-pointer to tie the contest at 74 apiece.
Coach Nnaji called for his last time-out, but the table officiating crew might have not heard his call.
The game resumed with a Nigerian turnover just to see Leia Dongue hitting a game-winning tree-pointer with a second left.
In a matter of seconds, Nigeria went from nearly shocking home fans to leave the court in disbelief.
Maputo 2013 Women Afrobasket Final Mozambique vs Angola Mozambique lost to Nigeria 10 years... http://t.co/yxW4xYDjn1— Sports Radio BrilaFM (@889BrilaFM) September 29, 2013
Needless to say that local fans mobbed their heroes who advanced to the Semi-Finals.
Nearly two years on, Nnaji is a more confident coach.
Even though Nigeria are yet to qualify for this year's edition of the AfroBasket Women - taking place in Yaounde, Cameroon from 24 September to 3 October - Nnaji, who was left speechless after that loss two years ago, is a different man.
I had last talked to coach Nnaji in Maputo, but over the weekend, I asked him to take me through Nigeria's Quarter-finals game and look ahead to Cameroon 2015.
He dubbed Mozambique 2013 as a "learning process" which has been great for his career.
"I still feel bad recalling that moment," he told me.
"We had two good teams trying their best to reach the Semi-Finals. It was unfortunate that it was too noisy inside the gym. I called a timeout but the officials said they couldn't hear me.
"I wanted my players to take the ball to the offensive end, but we turned it over.
"If that situation happens again, I now know how to deal with it. I'll rush to the table."
Meanwhile, Mozambique went on to beat Cameroon in the Semi-Finals to book their place in the 2014 FIBA Women's World Championship.
"Next time we face Mozambique, I am sure it will be a different ball game because we are building a younger and better team," Nnaji said.
Cameroon 2015 is a qualifying tournament for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and Nnaji who served as assistant coach to then senior women's national team coach Sam Vincent at the Athens Olympics, feels the country's women have what it takes to repeat their Olympic experience next year.
Judging by Nigeria's preliminary squad, their opponents should expect a competitive team.
If we make it to Cameroon, which I know we will, we will compete for the Olympics. - Nnaji
"My players know they can make it and are hoping to put their names in Nigerian basketball history," he added.
Former college standouts Adaora Elonu (Texas A&M) and Uju Ugoka (Virginia Tech Hokies) are expected to bring fresh legs to Nnaji's team.
"I hope they can make a difference for us," he said.
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