29 June, 2019
07 July
Long Read
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Record-breaking Mali shining bright for Africa, but not done

HERAKLION (Greece) - Mali made a whole continent proud as they reached the Quarter-Finals of the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2019, registering the best-ever performance for an African team at the competition. But Mali insist they are not done just yet.

Mali, who defeated New Zealand 77-62 in the Round of 16 for the historic milestone, are the legitimate powerhouse of African basketball right now, having come to Heraklion as the reigning champion of the FIBA U16 African Championship and FIBA U18 African Championship. The western Africans also collected victories over China and Philippines at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018 while also giving Serbia, Australia, Dominican Republic and Argentina major scares in finishing 12th.

"This is history. We are really grateful, me and my teammates. We came for this," said Oumar Ballo, the Mali big man who was part of all three of those teams and even was named to the All-Star Five of the U17 World Cup in Argentina.

"Last year in Argentina helped me a lot. I played there and dominated. I got a lot of experience there and learned a lot from that competition. That helped me a lot to be ready for this competition," added Ballo, who actually missed the first games in Heraklion but has been outstanding since arriving, averaging 17.5 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 4.0 blocks.

"I am really proud. This is a really big victory for Africa," added Mali coach Alhadji Dicko, whose team eclipsed the previous best mark for Africa of 11th place - done three times by Nigeria and twice by Egypt. "Now people will look at Mali like an American team or an European team."

Alhadji Dicko has his Mali team playing in style

Mali are appearing at the U19 World Cup for the third time following 2007 and 2017. But they had collected just one victory - a win over Puerto Rico in the game for 15th place in 2007. That total was matched on Day 1 in Greece with a win over Latvia and a second victory followed on Day 2 against defending champions Canada before dropping to Australia on a late three-pointer in the last game of the Group Phase.

"I am very proud, but we knew that we have a good generation and a generation that could really change a lot of things in Mali but also in Africa," said Mali guard Martin Diakite, who was on the Mali team that went 0-7 and finished 16th at Cairo 2017. "We showed to the world that African basketball is something good."

Martin Diakite suffered through seven losses in seven games at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2017. But he has three wins in four games in Heraklion

But all three of Ballo, Dicko and Diakite emphasized that they are not happy having only made history for the country and continent. They want more, starting with a victory in the Quarter-Finals over Puerto Rico.

"This is the first time ever for Africa to get this but this is not what we want. We want more. We came for this. We have been preparing this for a long time and we are ready to face everyone," Ballo said.

"We are very proud of ourselves but we are not planning on stopping here. We want to go for more," Diakite said.

And the coach added: “This is a big step but we want to go further.”

Senegal captain Jean-Jacques Boissy is happy about Mali's performance for Africa

Another group of supporters for Mali against Puerto Rico will be Senegal, who gave Canada a fight but could not overcome the defending champions in the Round of 16 and will try to finish strong in the Classification 9-16.

"What they are doing is great for Africa," Senegal captain Jean-Jacques Boissy said.

Mali definitely had been rooting for Senegal to join them in the Quarter-Finals.

"It would be a big thing. Sure, we are here for Mali, but we are here for Africa too. So if another team from Africa could go to the Quarter-Finals it would be really good for all of us," Diakite said in between Mali’s Round of 16 win and the start of the Senegal v Canada game later in the day.

Although Senegal didn't make it an African double, there is still plenty for the continent to be proud of.

Mali have definitely presented themselves as if they belong in the Quarter-Finals. After knocking off Latvia to start the tournament, the team really did not celebrate too wildly. Their joy leaked out a bit more after beating Canada - they had after all beaten the reigning champs. But their demeanor following the triumph over New Zealand was once again businessman-like.

"This is not our goal. We know we just have to be patient. We are not in a hurry. We will take it game by game and see what comes next," Ballo said.

Whatever it is, it promises to be historic.