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Can Nigeria become Africa's No.1 after the 2019 Women's AfroBasket? Evelyn Akhator explains why they can
LEEDS (Julio Chitunda) - The last four years have become a turning-point for Nigeria women's national team, and with the 2019 FIBA Women's AfroBasket just a month away, one question remains inevitable: Can they keep up the good work?
Judging by their latest results, it's safe to believe that they have restored their dominance from the early 2000s when they claimed two straight continental trophies (2003 and 2005).
Let's look at the facts: Third-Place finish at 2015 AfroBasket in Cameroon; Nigeria miss a spot at 2016 Rio Olympics by a whisker despite a 1-1 record in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Nantes, France; Nigeria win the 2017 African Championship and, more importantly, the West Africans became the first African team to reach the FIBA Women's World Cup Quarter-Finals last year.
Over the past eight years, Angola won two titles (2011 and 2013), Senegal won the following edition in 2015, before the Nigerians regained the throne of Africa Women's basketball two years ago in Mali.
What's behind Nigeria's resurgence and why do their immediate opponents Senegal, Mali and Mozambique face an uphill task to deny them in Dakar (9-18 August)?
Ever since eleven-time African champions Senegal were confirmed as hosts of next month's FIBA Women's African Championship, they reiterated that winning at home is their utmost priority.
They not only became the first team to start their preparation with a 16-player training camp on home soil a month ago, but they have also recently announced that they will spend part of their preparations in China in order to successfully reach a milestone of 12 continental titles.
Clearly, as the No.1 team in Africa - according to FIBA World Rankings presented by NIKE - and despite losing to Nigeria twice two years ago in Mali, the Senegalese emerge as the most capable team of trying to stop Nigeria's attempt to win two straight titles again.
But Senegal will need to be at their very best to prevent Nigeria from building on from an impressive 2018 FIBA Women's World Cup campaign where they beat Argentina, Turkey and Greece to become the first African team to reach the Quarter-Finals.
I've recently caught up with Nigeria all-around star Evelyn Akhator, who recalled that they love being in the position they are, and she went on elaborate how opponents will need to go extra mile to stop them.
"Every tournament is challenging, but what I’ll say is how challenging will it be for other teams to play us because teams are going into the coming AfroBasket with the mindset of beating Nigeria. So I think the right question should be, “How challenging would it be to get rid of D’Tigress?”
The 24-year-old, who recently joined Spain's Perfumarias Avenida, continued explaining why they look to win in Africa and beyond: "One thing we know how to do is fight until the buzzer goes off, and I think that’s something we intend doing again. I won’t say African circle alone because we made statements as well in Tenerife (2018 World Cup) and it was a go for us. One thing that’s helping us is our work ethic and the administration, they got us and gave us what we needed to make the AfroBasket a success and I believe and hope it’ll be so in the coming AfroBasket."
And if you wonder where the Nigerians get so much determination from to keep on going, Akhator reveals it all: "We made a statement in the 2018 World Cup and that’s because of the coaching staff and what he puts in us. Basketball is 80% mental and 20% physical. What you put in is what comes out. They trained our mind with the mentality that we’re going to the World Cup to take a medal, even though we came short of achieving that goal, we didn’t leave either without making a statement.
"As a team, one of the things that stood out was our ability to withstand and fight. We were the smallest team to compete in Tenerife but we made big statements that even the commentators can’t resist talking about us. We made sure every game was fun for us and we made history multiple times.
"My goal is for us to win this next AfroBasket; My goal is for Nigeria to be No.1 again in Africa; My goal is for us to keep making statements and keep shutting people up, it’s time for the underdogs to start eating; a lot of people are sleeping on us; A lot of teams underrates us but it’s time for us to make our voice heard and known."
The battle for the No.1 spot in Africa is just about to commence. I'll bring you more over the next few weeks.
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