Can Cameroon win first-ever Women's AfroBasket title?
PUNTA GORDA (USA) - Cameroon's journey at FIBA Women's AfroBasket over the last decade has been a tale of growth, laced with a moment of glory dented by Senegal's prowess and a decline so spectacular that's left fans perplexed.
A key figure in this tumultuous journey, Ramses Lonlack reminisces what was a brief shot to prominence for the Cameroon side on the continent.
When she first played on the continent's most celebrated women's basketball bonanza in 2011, the "Lionesses", as the Cameroonian team is referred to, were the youngest side in the competition with an average age of 22.
The team's grit and resilience saw them worm their way to the Quarter-Finals where they were overpowered by hosts Mali.
Two years later, Cameroon returned to the continental scene, resolved to rival the continent's best with Lonlack determined to spur the team in the Mozambican capital Maputo.
"THE TARGET REMAINS THE SAME, WHICH IS TO WIN THE GOLD MEDAL AT AFROBASKET."
Averaging 8.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, the Belabo native breathed some inspiration into the "Lionesses" ranks as the side were denied a spot in the Final by hosts Mozambique in a 61-57 thriller that saw a meltdown from the Central Africans in the second half.
Then came the FIBA Women's AfroBasket 2015 on home court.
Cameroon's young and inexperienced side from 2011 had within four years metamorphosed into a group that could grind past tougher opposition and get the results.
Cameroon maintained a spectacular 7-0 clean slate in their run to the Final edging past Mali, Mozambique, and a star-studded Nigerian team to set up a cracking final against Senegal.
Lonlack throughout the tournament was on fire, smashing home 15.5 points and 3.5 rebounds as Cameroon's dream for a maiden continental conquest was dashed to the winds by a more lethal Senegalese side.
"The evolution of Cameroon's performances in the FIBA competition has always been in the top, " Lonlack told FIBA.basketball in an exclusive interview before adding: "Years are different and teams at AfroBasket are getting better and stronger.
"But the target remains the same, which is to win the gold medal at AfroBasket."
But just when it looked like Cameroon was becoming a continental powerhouse, there was a meltdown, an unprecedented one that took even the side's most fervent diehards unawares.
Rejuvenation of the Cameroonian side and a change of coach saw the team lose seven of their nine outings at Women's AfroBasket 2017 finishing in an unenviable Eighth-Place position with Lonlack contributing 14.6 points and 5.2 rebounds in that tournament.
The Bamako expedition was the last time the guard suited up for Cameroon. She sat out the 2019 edition of the Women's AfroBasket and felt helpless when Cameroon finished tenth, with just a win in three fixtures.
"Cameroon is in the peak of rebuilding its team and often you have to bring in new players and new coaches, play games lose some then get better," Lonlack said.
"I don't feel that the recent performance had anything to do with the rotation of players nor coaches nor staff. When you're rebuilding or revamping a team, there's always going to be hard times like that and it takes some time to get better."
Now aged 32, Lonlack who's been nicknamed "African Queen" is gripped by excitement at the thought of playing again at the FIBA Women's AfroBasket later this year [Cameroon will need to qualify].
Ramses Lonlack last featured for Cameroon at FIBA Women's AfroBasket 2017
The 1.78m (5ft 10in) guard has been working out and getting to great shape as she hopes to dazzle in what will be her fifth AfroBasket stint.
"I've played at four AfroBaskets in 2011,2013,2015 and 2017. It's been a phenomenal journey and I'll love to feature in the competition this year," she pointed out.
"On a personal level, the goal is to come out, play hard for my country as I've always done."
"In the past, we've worked hard and tried to lift the trophy and I feel the collective goal will be to finally get that FIBA Women's AfroBasket title we've all always wanted.
"At the back of my mind there's always been a [FIBA Women's] World Cup qualification for Cameroon and that in itself will be something huge for Cameroonian basketball."
The former Memphis Tigers star is aware that she'll have to shoulder the weight of expectations from millions of ever-demanding Cameroonian diehards.
"I am a leader by nature," Lonlack says smiling, "which means I am here for my team.
"Sharing my knowledge, experience with the younger players is what I have always done and I am happy to keep doing as much as possible.
"The team comes first and I will do whatever I have to do to put my team on the podium."
The Cameroonian basketball star admits she perceives the sport differently having garnered more than a decade of experience playing across several continents.
Since becoming a mother in 2018 to a lovely baby girl, the Cameroon international has been vocal about balancing motherhood and thriving in sports.
"God truly blessed me to be Diana’s mother. Motherhood has its trials and errors but in the end, it is worth it because it helps you build patience and you understand the true meaning of caring and loving.
"I am a lioness and I am a top-level athlete. My baby provides me with new motivation and I'll love her to watch me play again."
Lonlack is the first to say it, she loves challenges.
When she's not playing basketball or caring for her daughter, she's in boots, trying to make an impact in Punta Gorda, Florida where she spends her days working as a full-time site engineer.
"It's fun being an engineer," Lonlack chips in "I truly love it because I'm living my dream being an engineer but also doing something that will impact lives in parts of Southern Florida.
"It is challenging but I'm someone who sees competition everywhere, so it sort of keeps me going.
"I am a full-time mother, full-time engineer, and full-time athlete" Lonlack giggles as she says it.
"I have huge faith in God and I think a lot of what I'm able to do is down to my faith.
"People especially young girls and women need to believe in their dreams. They can be anything they want to be if they work towards it.
"I engage in all the tasks I have to do with a lot of motivation and if I can do it, anyone can do it," she concluded.