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Sky is the limit for high-flying Cote d'Ivoire
BENGUELA (Angola) - With the win over Angola in Angola on Friday in the opener of Group C of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 African Qualifiers, Cote d'Ivoire improved to 3-1 against the top-5 ranked teams in Africa, a record achieved over the course of the last year.
With the exception of Tunisia, in the last 12 months, the No.5 team in Africa have beaten Nigeria (No.1), Senegal (No.4), Angola (No.3), and they show no signs of slowing down.
It's the highest moment for the high-flying Elephants over the last decade.
"THEY [COTE D'IVOIRE PLAYERS] ARE VERY GOOD COMPETITORS. I REALLY THINK THEY BELIEVE IN WHAT WE DO, THE TECHNICAL STAFF. THAT'S ALL.THE QUALITY OF THE PLAYERS, MENTALITY, THE ABILITY TO PERFORM ON THE DAY AND GOOD HABITS."
For the two-time FIBA AfroBasket champions being in the position that they are now is the culminate of a thoroughly rebuilding process that has seen the Elephants finish as low as 14th at the 2017 edition of the African Championship in Tunisia.
With half of the sixteen African teams now competing for the five tickets available for Africa for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023, the inevitable question is whether or not the Elephants are back on the top of Africa and are strong enough to return to World Cup for the second time in a row.
"It's not a big secret," Cote d'Ivoire head coach Ignacio Lezcano replied when asked about his team's successful run against Africa's big teams.
"It's a matter of good habits and good characters in the team. They are very good competitors. I really think they believe in what we do, the technical staff. That's all. The quality of the players, mentality, the ability to perform on the day and good habits."
Dating back to the start of the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 Qualifiers in January 2020 in Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire haven't tasted defeat until two months ago when they fell to Tunisia in the AfroBasket 2021 final.
Ahead of their game against Guinea on Sunday, Cote d'Ivoire were on a 13-1 winning streak in Africa.
Not even the absences of Matt Costello or Deon Thompson seems to have affected the team's winning mentality.
Is the sky the limit for Cote d'Ivoire?
"I don't know what is the limit," Lezcano replied.
"We go game by game. We don't think about any other thing. Yesterday I said we were very happy because we beat Angola in Angola, which is very good for us, big time.
"But after two hours, we were thinking about this game [against Central African Republic]. Now we are happy that we won this game."
Cote d'Ivoire have kept Lezcano at the helm of the Elephants since his return in January 2020.
"The first time I came here (to the CIV team in 2011) it was my first experience in Africa and it was like an adventure for me and an opportunity to know a country, to know a people, to know a different kind of basketball. But also to be part of an international championship. After that I had a very good relationship with everybody there."
Cote d'Ivoire became the last African team to qualify to the World Cup 2019, but they sit in pole position for the 32-nation FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 to be held in Indonesia, Japan and Philippines.