Nigeria women basketball rise above tribulation to make history

US' guard Jewell Loyd (R) vies with Nigeria's forward Adaora Elonu during the FIBA 2018 Women's Basketball World Cup quarter final match between the two countries. JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images

To watch Nigeria's women's basketball team sail into a historic FIBA Women's World Cup quarterfinal in only their second appearance, where they eventually fell 71-40 to the USA on Friday morning, one might be tempted to believe that it has been all smooth sailing.

If only that were the case.

The vein-popping celebrations when they beat Argentina and the electric on-court insanity when they toppled Greece by a point, were forged in the fires of the adversity that D'Tigress have had to overcome to get this far.

Although the Nigerians eventually succumbed to the might and firepower of USA, the fighting spirit they showed is one of inspiration and the power of national pride.

Winning the Afrobasket title in 2017 was the first step on their historic journey, and they did it by overcoming rivals and Africa's top-rated side Senegal.

Even under the best of circumstances, not many could have foreseen or even predicted three wins on the bounce at the World Cup and a place in the quarterfinals, which is where they now are.

But from their very first game, a hard-fought loss to Liz Cambage's Australia, they showed that they had the heart to deal with any and all forms of challenges.

All looked well and good as they gathered for training camp in Atlanta earlier this year, as the team began their World Cup preparation program.

Within a couple of weeks however, that serenity was broken by the news that head coach Sam Vincent had been fired and replaced almost immediately by current coach Otis Hughley.

Vincent was accused of dereliction of duty, being absent from the camp without permission. It was an allegation the coach denied vigorously.

As part of his defence, Vincent claimed that new General Manager Mactabene Amachree, who was appointed to replace Mfon Udoka, was a divisive influence in and on the team. Udoka's replacement had seemingly not been well-received by the squad.

Those squad squabbles came to a head with reports that a physical altercation had broken out between players while in Atlanta.

Captain Aisha Mohammed is reported to have assaulted Ijeoma Ajemba, a matter which was then reported to the police in Atlanta and contributed to Mohammed losing the captain's band.

There was also some trouble with Dominique Wilson and Jasmine Nwajei, when their paperwork failed to come through on time, costing both their places in the squad, and led to a stroke of good fortune for Sarah Ogoke.

Good fortune that was to work in D'Tigress' favour when Ogoke, whose selection was touch and go according to Otis, came up big in that historic first win over Turkey.

None of that mattered however, once the team got to Tenerife, Spain. They put whatever differences they had aside and focused on one goal. The goal of not only winning their first ever World Cup game, but winning the game after, and the one after that and then the next one.

And so, in their second appearance at the World Cup, D'Tigress, have become the first Africa team to reach the World Cup quarterfinals.

And, as if showing an exhibition of the diamond they have transformed in to after overcoming tribulations, they did so on the back of gritty defensive performances, especially in the opposition paint.

Heading into their game against Greece, the Nigerian women were the best offensive rebounding team with 20 rebounds per game. BballNaija puts this number in perspective: The WNBA's highest offensive rebounding team last season were the Connecticut Sun, and they averaged 11 offensive rebounds per game.

Although they allowed the opposition to claw back points in the second half of games, especially in the last quarter, the players exhibited dogged fortitude in those closing moments to hold on for each of their three historic wins.

It is this sort of pluck, this clawing their way out tight corners, that they showed in the first two quarters against a US team whose pedigree is enough to scare the living daylights out of even the hardiest opposition.

The Americans have won eight of the last nine Olympic gold medals and six of the last eight FIBA World Cup tournaments. They have also scored 100 points in consecutive games, where the Nigerians have yet to break a century.

But for the first two quarters it was hard to notice the difference, as the rookie Nigerian Davids not only restricted the US Goliaths, but actually held a first quarter lead. Further proof of the fight they had in them.

In the end, they succumbed to both the USA's quality and superior firepower, but their point had been very eloquently made.