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Nigeria's Olympics-chasing Ezinne Kalu ready to "bleed for the green and white" in Belgrade
LANDERNEAU (France) - Life has changed for Ezinne Kalu since that hot and sweaty night in August in a packed Dakar Arena, when Nigeria beat hosts Senegal to win the FIBA Women's AfroBasket 2019.
D'Tigress captured the title for the second time in a row and Kalu, who started at point guard, was named the tournament's MVP. She turned the event into her own personal track meet, coming up with steals and racing up the floor on fast breaks. Kalu averaged 13.0 points and a tournament-best 3.0 steals per game.
Since that night, Kalu says opponents have been looking at her in a different light.
"I'm playing in France [for Landerneau Bretagne Basket], now," she said. "Most of the girls know I was the MVP and they don't take it easy on me. I feel it every game. But it's increased my level of focus, forced me to want to get better, to take my game to the highest level. Every day is a chance for me to get better."
Kalu's averaging 14.6 points and 2.0 steals in the French top flight.
"IN ORDER TO BE THE BEST, YOU HAVE TO BEAT THE BEST OR EVEN PLAY AGAINST THE BEST. GAMES LIKE THIS AGAINST THE USA AND SERBIA ARE OPPORTUNITIES FOR US TO SHOW WHAT WE CAN DO AGAINST TOP TEAMS."
Nigeria will need Kalu's inspiration when they play at the FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade from February 6 - 9. She represented Nigeria on this stage four years ago in Nantes as well, hitting one of her team's biggest shots of the event.
With time running out, she drilled a game-winning three-pointer against Korea.
Nigeria won that game, 70-69, but missed out on a spot in the Quarter-Finals after losing a goal-differential tie-breaker.
She is relishing the chance to face Serbia, Mozambique and, for the first time since their FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018 Quarter-Final, the USA.
"In order to be the best, you have to beat the best, or even play against the best," Kalu said. "Games like this against the USA and Serbia are opportunities for us to show what we can do against top teams.
"We know we're the top team in Africa and that's great but to take our level of focus and game to the next level, we have to play against these great teams and show our talent.
"To be on the court with the USA is always a good thing and this year we're more solid and might have a chance of surprising them and actually beating them. I tell my team all the time we need to focus on what we want to do."
Kalu and Nigeria faced the USA in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018 Quarter-Finals
Serbia were FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2015 champions and the third-placed team when they hosted last year's EuroBasket.
"They'll be playing at home and will have that advantage," Kalu said. "It's important we go into that game ready to play. Senegal's home crowd at the [FIBA] Women's AfroBasket was incredible and Serbia's is probably going to be even bigger and louder.
"But this is huge for us. The last time our women's team went to the Olympics was 2004 so for us to have an opportunity to do something like this, it's extraordinary. We won't be looking past anybody. But if we try and go 3-0 in Belgrade, that would be great for us ahead of the Olympics."
Kalu says Nigeria's coaches deserve a lot of credit for what the team has achieved in recent times, especially head coach Otis Hughley Jr.
"He brings this fire out in us," she said. "He wants us to win, to play hard and wants us to respect the game. He wants us to be successful, to fight for 40 minutes and wants us into it whether we're on the court or on the bench.
"We have the coaching staff behind us, pushing us all the time."
Kalu says Belgrade is hugely important for Nigerian basketball.
"The Olympic Qualifying Tournament is a great stage to show what we can do," she said. "I want to bring pride, heart and determination. I know my teammates feed off my energy. I want everyone to know that I live for the green and white, I sweat for these colors, I bleed for these colors. I want my teammates to know anything is possible."