Nigeria’s World Cup breakthrough ends at hands of Team USA

Nneka Ogwumike of the U.S. looks to shoot against Nigeria. Photo courtesy of FIBA.
Nneka Ogwumike of the U.S. looks to shoot against Nigeria. Photo courtesy of FIBA. /

SAN CRISTOBAL de la LAGUNA, Spain – The U.S. women’s basketball team might have rolled into the semifinals of the FIBA World Cup with a 71-40 win over Nigeria on Friday, but the breakthrough performance of the African nations might be what makes this competition memorable.

Prior to Senegal’s victory over Latvia on Sunday, African teams posted a record comparable to No. 16 seeds in the men’s NCAA Tournament prior to UMBC’s upset of Virginia this year. The Senegalese win was the first ever for an African team in the group stage, and Nigeria followed with wins over Turkey, Argentina and Greece to reach the quarterfinals. Senegal, meanwhile, remained tough and was tied with Spain at halftime in what would be a 15-point loss in Wednesday’s elimination game.

Nigeria, or D’Tigress as it is nicknamed, led 17-9 after the first quarter, before the heavily-favorited defending champions took over, led with Breanna Stewart’s 19 points and A’ja Wilson’s 11.

More from International

“We were fortunate – or unfortunate- to play both teams,” U.S. coach Dawn Staley told High Post Hoops. “They certainly don’t have history on their side, meaning they haven’t broken through in getting wins. I think they’re well coached and very disciplined in their style of play. They go up against teams like us, and you believe in your style of play, and you start getting us to make adjustments to how you play, you’re going to win a lot more basketball games. Surely, in international play to come, they won’t be looked over. They weren’t looked over by us by any means, but we know what they bring to the table, and we certainly were prepared for that.”

Of course, you can’t intertwine the U.S. and Nigerian women’s basketball programs without the mention of Nneka Ogwumike, the 6-foot-2 U.S. forward who as she said was “raised Nigerian-American” in the Houston area.

“I think it’s really great that I was able to play against them,” Ogwumike said. “I’ve had a relationship with them since I was 14 years old, and I’ve been with (USA Basketball) since the same age. It is kind of annoying when people only talk about it when it comes up into play because as you see, they’re in the quarterfinals. I’m sure that now that USA isn’t playing them, people are going to stop asking me questions about them,” she added, laughing. “I hope it picks up more as my career comes on, my heritage and where I come from.”

The Nigerians were composed of a virtual All-Star team of players recognizable to American college fans. Adaora Elonu won a national championship with Texas A&M in 2011, Evelyn Akhator was a dominant center at Kentucky, Promise Amukamara at Arizona State, Atonye Nyingifa at UCLA, and Aisha Mohammed at Virginia also played for Nigeria. Before Tenerife, of which they qualified for as the 2017 Afrobasket champions, the Nigerians finished dead last in their lone world championship appearance in 2006, and they were 11th of 12 at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

“I think the whole continent of Africa is so proud of us,” Amukamara said. “I think we did well in the first two quarters against the USA, not the third and the fourth because the USA is a great team. I think we did well, though.”

The fact that this year’s quarterfinals touches nations on five continents, minus South America, also shows the growth the sport has reached worldwide. In comparison, at this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Russia, Japan was the only team out of Europe and South America to reach the Round of 16, and no African team made the stage for the first time since 1982.

“You’re seeing a lot of these African countries, not just their organization has developed, but their play has developed,” added Ogwumike, who also does educational work in Nigeria with her sister Chiney. “It’s only up from here, and if I can be a part of it, that would be cool.”