BY JULIUS MBARAGA
TEAMS went into the 2009 Afrobasket championship in Libya knowing that there was a lot to play for. The competition also doubled as the road to Turkey because the top three teams in Libya would qualify for the 2010 Fiba-World Championship in Turkey.
At the end of the grueling ten-days, it was Angola, Ivory Coast and Tunisia, who claimed these slots.
Angola, like many had anticipated, won a record tenth title to further assert their status as Africa’s basketball kings.
The Southern African giants led by tournament MVP Joaquim Gomes beat Ivory Coast 82-72 in the final to race to their sixth title on the trot.
It was sheer brilliancy by the Angolans since they also finished their nine-game campaign without losing a game.
Tunisia also snatched that final World Championship slot after ousting Cameroon 83-68 in the third place playoff.
Rwanda were not in that class but going by the national team coach (Kavedzija Vaceslav)’s recent remarks, Rwanda’s display at the championship is a good foundation for the 2011event which is likely to be hosted by Morocco.
Rwanda finished 9th in the sixteen-nation tournament, climbing three slots from their 2007 performance in Angola.
The team flew to Libya with a mission of getting to the quarter-finals and although the team came one position short of their target, resounding wins over Africa’s top nations like Cameroon, Senegal, Egypt and Cape Verde proved how lethal Vaceslav’s team can be.
In the group stages, Rwanda picked one win and lost two games. The win came against 2007 second runners up Cape Verde (77-67) while defeats were against the Arab nations of Morocco (84-85) and Tunisia (57-74).
In all fairness, Rwanda deserved to win the Morocco game but switched off a little too early.
The team regrouped fast to see off Cape Verde but were soon criticized for failing to build on that win after going down to Tunisia.
Rwanda headed into the Tunisia tie as slight favourites on two counts; going into the match on the back of a Cape Verde win and knowing that the Tunisians had been trounced by Cape Verde (52-71).
However, Tunisia had other ideas as they trounced Rwanda 74-57 to finish top of the group (D).
The team progressed into the round of eight where they were drawn with heavy weights Senegal, Central African Republic (CAR) and Cameroon.
At this point, even hanging onto their 2007 position (12th) seemed very unlikely. Only Vaceslav knew what his guns were capable of.
Rwanda’s 72-59 win over Senegal dominated headlines in Tripoli. It was the first major upset of the tournament. But similar to the group stage, the team buckled under the spot light losing 64-85 against CAR.
The team again came under criticism for failing to build on their wins. In fact, many predicted that Rwanda would be easily-beaten by Cameroon, but to their dismay, it was upset number two for the East African team.
The burgeoning partnership between Kenny Gasana and Robert Thomson tore Cameroon apart 82-69 to signal their intentions at the event.
At this point, Rwanda had turned themselves into giant destroyers.
Despite these wins, Rwanda still missed out on the quarter-finals by just a margin of an inch but made the most of their classification games by beating hosts Libya (80-77) and long-time Zone 5 nemesis Egypt (78-75).
Putting these results together, it was clear that the team started playing well towards the end of the tournament partly because they had finally forged a combination.
The players hardly played together before the tournament and used the opening games trying to gel as a team.
In his post-tournament remarks, Kenny Gasana, Rwanda’s top scorer and fifth at the tournament with an average of18.3pts per game reckoned that with good and adequate preparations, the team has the potential to make the semi-finals and probably snick into the top three.
The camaraderie and willingness in the team has convinced Vaceslav that Rwanda will be a force to reckon with come 2011.
“All the team needs is good and early preparations to challenge the usual big guns in the competition.
But on a whole, I’m proud of the lads. They played well,” the Croat said.
With only one sound friendly game (against Turkey) before the 2009 Afrobasket event, Rwanda’s performance in Libya was a commendable effort.