LAS VEGAS -- Nigerian women's basketball coach Otis Hughley Jr. called on FIBA to live up to its pledge of wanting to improve the sport of women's basketball by letting Nigerian American players Nneka Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams compete for Team Nigeria in the Tokyo Olympics.
Hughley spoke after the Nigerian women fell 93-62 Sunday in an exhibition loss to Team USA at Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay, the final tuneup for both teams before they head to Japan. They will face off in Group B play in their Olympic opener on July 27.
But it's uncertain if Williams, who started Sunday, Nneka Ogwumike and her sister Chiney Ogwumike will be able to play for Team Nigeria in Tokyo. Wednesday, Nneka Ogwumike and Williams were denied their application to play on the basis of their previous association with USA Basketball. Chiney Ogwumike was given provisional status to play for Nigeria as a naturalized citizen. The Ogwumike sisters, who compete for the Los Angeles Sparks, are both past WNBA No. 1 draft picks from Stanford, while the Atlanta Dream's Williams played collegiately at Duke.
Nneka and Chiney rebounded for the Nigerians during warm-ups Sunday and sat on the bench. They have been dealing with injuries that have keep them out of WNBA play since late May/early June, but both hope to be healthy enough to play in Tokyo if they are on the Nigerian team.
"Allow them the opportunity to help grow the game," Hughley said, and then added that it would mean a great deal to Nigeria and Africa to even be in contention to possibly win an Olympic medal, something no African nation has ever done in men's or women's basketball.
"That continent would just be turned on its head for basketball. In a good way," Hughley said. "You have no idea how many lives would be impacted and changed for the ages."
Hughley said he is not sure when the Nigerians will get final word on the appeal or submit their roster, but with the Olympics beginning later this week, it has to be soon.
On its website, FIBA -- the world governing body for basketball -- states that a big part of the organization's mission is "the unifying of the community, along with the promotion and development of the sport." And that FIBA's three current strategic priorities are "empowering national federations, promoting women in basketball, and enlarging the FIBA family."
Generally, if players have competed for one nation in a FIBA-sanctioned event after having reached their 17th birthday -- which both Nneka Ogwumike and Williams did with Team USA -- they are not allowed to play for another country in a FIBA event.
However, according to FIBA's regulations on player eligibility, the organization's secretary general may authorize players to compete for the national team of their country of origin if it is in the interest of the growth of basketball in that country.
Nneka, Chiney and Williams all filed an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Friday, asking it to rule on FIBA's denial on the grounds that their participation with Nigeria would help the game's growth. Their appeal also alleges that all three should be considered full Nigerian citizens as the children of Nigerian parents, not naturalized citizens, since only one naturalized citizen can be included on any country's Olympic basketball roster.
Hughley said he is committed to the players he's already sure are eligible, which includes the Ogwumikes' youngest sister, Erica, a former Rice standout who did not compete for USA Basketball. But they are also "hoping and praying" that the three WNBA players can be part of the 12-member Olympic roster.
"Why would you not certify them?" Hughley said. "I just don't understand."
Hughley also said he is concerned that the major push behind the denials is coming from other countries that think they might have a chance to medal in women's basketball and are against the Nigerian team getting stronger.
"They didn't anticipate us being in that position," he said. "So there's some things going on that nobody sees and nobody talks about. It gets in the way of integrity. It's gonna catch up with whoever's doing that. It's just dead wrong. I know FIBA is better than that. I've been part of them a long time; it's a great organization."
Williams, a center, played the most of anyone on the Nigerian team Sunday, finishing with four points and four rebounds in 29:25 on the floor. Erica Ogwumike had five points. The Nigerians were led by Atonye Nyingifa, a former UCLA player who had nine points.
Nyingifa said the Nigerian players have welcomed the three WNBA players.
"They've been nothing but giving -- their energy, their wisdom brings a lot to our team," she said. "Just their presence and what they've accomplished overall in their careers."
Meanwhile, Sunday's game perked up a United States women's squad that had lost consecutive exhibition games to Team WNBA in the All-Star Game Wednesday and to Team Australia on Friday. The Americans were led by Las Vegas' A'ja Wilson with 16 points and 10 rebounds, and they shot 53.8% from the field while holding Nigeria to 30.6% shooting.
American coach Dawn Staley said it was a good send-off for her group, which seeks the U.S. program's seventh consecutive gold medal. Regarding the Nigerians, she expects they will present an even tougher challenge in Tokyo whether they add the WNBA players or not.
"They have a great coaching staff," Staley said. "They have buy-in, and when you have that, you're going to put yourself in position to be in the Olympic Games and possibly medal. They're not just happy to be a participant. They want a medal."