The all-time D’tigress star, Evelyn Akhator believes Nigeria’s triumph at the 2019 FIBA Women’s Afrobasket which held In Senegal was down to their “zeal to win” which she said was more unabated than all the opponents they faced on their way to holding onto the trophy.
The team successfully pinned down Nigeria’s title with a 60-55 points victory over hosts and eleven-time champions Senegal on Sunday in Dakar to complete an astonishing unbeaten run that has now stretched to 13 games dating back to the bronze medal match in 2015 against Angola in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
On interacting with media personnel after the team arrived at the Murtala Mohammed International airport to a larger-than-life reception on Monday, the Center Forward who was named in the team of the tournament for the second consecutive time after achieving a similar feat in Mali 2017 said the entire both old and young were driven by an intense hunger for glory.
“It’s just all about the zeal, the zeal to win. The young ones wanted to win gold and we wanted to retain the tournament in Africa, we wanted to retain the Cup”.
“The thing is just believing in ourselves and we tried to do it as much as we [could],” the 24-year old Perfumarias Avenida of Spain player said.
Playing against the Senegals who were the host in front of a reported 15,000 home crowd – the largest ever recorded for a basketball event on the continent – was surely intimidating, and it was obvious in the way the match played out with the D’Tigress who had led in the first three quarters having to dig harder ignored to claim the win after Senegal drew level in the fourth quarter with a little over two minutes left on the clock.
Akhator said D’Tigress always had it at the back of their mind that they’d eventually face Senegal at some stage in the tournament and knew they’d also have to deal with a hostile crowd. Their mental preparations, she said, ameliorated them in the unwonted atmosphere in the Dakar Arena, and also, helped them keep their heads up during Senegal’s resurgence later during the game.
“I think it’s our poise, our zeal, and our patience to just keep calm,” Akhator explained about how the girls were able to cope in the face of overwhelming support from the home side.
“[On Sunday] we were playing against 15,000 in the crowd, that’s a lot! But the poise and the calmness to just.., we knew before we left Nigeria that we were going to play against Senegal, not just the players but also the crowd. We knew that for sure and we kept our poise I think that’s what actually helped us.”
At the sound of the final buzzer, the entire team erupted in pure joy but Akhator says the whole thing still seems a bit of fantasy and it would probably take a few days for the reality of their victory yo sink in.
“I’m excited, I’m so excited [but] it hasn’t dawned on us yet, maybe two, three, four days time, it’s going to dawn on us that we are still retaining the trophy and we are the African champions. It hasn’t dawned on us yet, we are still living in the moment and the joy and I’m excited [about] that”.
Nigeria’s win also means they have qualified to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics qualifiers November where they will come up against Congo DR and Mozambique in Group A.
Despite their high status as Africa’s top list and having dispatched Congo DR easily at the 2019 FIBA Women’s AfroBasket, Akhator who had a continuance in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) as the 3rd overall pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft by the Dallas Wings, said D’Tigress will not “take any team lightly” as they make their way to the Olympics after virtually missing out on the 2016 edition in Rio.
“We’ve seen Congo [DR], we’ve played against [them] before and Mozambique we played against them two years ago, and they gave Senegal [a] tough time”.
“We can’t take any team lightly, we’ve got to prepare and come together again and do what we’ve got to do to play.”