Nigeria has advanced to the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Some might look at this team and see them as a bunch of loosely related American-born players who don't really represent the nation of Nigeria, hired to come and win it because they don't have anything better to do. But this team is so much more than that.
At the beginning of this tournament, the face of the team was completely different than the team that came third in the 2011 Afrobasket. Many of the players appeared to have never even met each other before, and the team looked totally disorganized. Players often forgot their assignments on defense, and it looked like the coach totally forgot to select a point guard, as nobody ever got any assists. They lost to a completely inferior Venezuela team, leaving them at 0-1 and likely out of the Olympics.
But the team rallied back. They managed to beat a Lithuania team that was superior in many respects. Some might say that the Nigerian team was tailor made to beat Lithuania, having a solid rebounding game and the ability to beat Lithuania on the break. But Nigeria's game was evolving as well, as they started to trust their outside shooters more and play to other player's strengths. The streak of success continued, beating a equally good Greek team and nearly battling back to challenge a tremendous Russian team late in the game.
When I saw Nigeria play today, the team was almost unrecognizable, even from the team I saw play yesterday against Russia. They were passing the ball out of the post, almost like a European team would do. The ball moved more than the usual one or two passes the Nigerians made. Al-Farouq Aminu was more energized than usual, blocking jump shots and playing fantastic defense. Most of all, the Nigerian trap was fierce, leaving less open shooters than usual, and getting the ball on the break in the most critical of times.
What really made me love this team though was the passion they and their fans showed, before, during, and after the game. The team tried to wear green on the court despite their home designation, because they had won both of their games while wearing green. FIBA made them change the uniforms back to white, but the coaches stayed true with the superstition, wearing striped green polos. In the stands, the Nigerian Sports Minister was leading chants while wearing a suit, and the fans were dedicatedly pounding their drums. But they weren't the regimented fans that we're all accustomed to seeing in Europe, wearing matching gear and doing synchronized chants, or possibly even holding up a large flag. They were, like their team, a rag tag bunch of fans who showed up to have a good time, swaying together in a chaotic harmony, chanting nothing more than "Nigeria!".
Below: More of the Scene, Dominican Tragedy, How the Game Went, Top Performers!
After the game, players and coaches partied together at mid-court. There was no stoic coach unwilling to participate with his players, feeling he must always be separated. Nigerian coach Ayo Bakare was in the midst of the celebration, dancing and hugging all the way. Some players even went up into the stands to greet the fans and join in the celebration. With a scene like that, you know that this team is about more than getting seen by scouts so they can join a higher paying club next year. They were about winning for their country, and that's that.
But before I get too ahead of myself, I'd like to say that the Dominicans showed heart as well. Al Horford gave his all for the team, and couldn't contain himself after the game, straight up walking off of the floor. Josh Asselin went to mid-court to congratulate the Nigerians. One player even sat on the bench, crying. John Calipari was on the bench constantly shouting at his players to listen, and could often be seen on the sidelines shaking his head. It was a good effort from the small Carribean nation, and we'll next see them on Thursday in an exhibition against Team USA.
In terms of the game, it was really tight up until the end of the third quarter. Both teams were virtually even in terms of statistics, and they played a very similar style. But, because of that style, the score was constantly liable to change, and no lead was safe. The Dominican Republic established a solid 16-8 lead in the first quarter, but the Nigerians quickly eliminated it with a 14-0 run. Nigeria held a consistent small lead after that which went to double digits in the early second half, but that was eliminated after Nigeria went scoreless for three and a half minutes in the third. The Dominican Republic finally tied the game with six and a half minutes to go in the fourth. Unfortunately for them, Nigeria shortly ran away with the game.
I've talked about the two playstyles of these teams to death, so I'll just say that the reason the Nigerians won this game was Ike Diogu. Back to back threes in the clutch, and then a sweet hook a few minutes later, with the highest arc I've ever seen on that type of shot. The Nigerians have always delivered when it's mattered in clutch situations, and might be one of the coldest teams I've ever seen late in the game.
One thing that also can't be ignored is the assist count. The Nigerians won the assist battle 18-9, and it was pretty clear that they had evolved into a better brand of offensive basketball. They still didn't have a Nash-like point guard, but guys were more hesitant about throwing up difficult shots that they knew they couldn't make, and they were smarter about making passes in half-court sets. The Dominicans normally relied on Al Horford for a lot of their assists, but he was really aggressive on offense for the second straight game. The offense didn't flow through him, and as a result, the Dominicans actually did better with him off of the floor.
Diogu led all scorers tonight and was the clear MVP, finishing with 25 points and 10 rebounds. Other players were in double digits for Nigeria, but Al-Farouq Aminu's performance was the most impressive, having 7 rebounds and 3 blocks to go along with his 14 points. On the Dominican Republic's side, it was the usual three suspects at the top of the box score again, with Francisco Garcia scoring 17 points, Yack Michael Martinez scoring 16, Al-Farouq Aminu scoring 14, and Al Horford scoring 12. Martinez had 9 rebounds, and both Aminu and Horford finished with 7 rebounds.
What did you think of the game? Will Nigeria be able to challenge for a medal in London? Let us know! Vote in the poll, post a comment!