June 5, 2013

India qualify for 2013 FIBA Asia Championship by winning SABA Zone Qualifiers

India started off as favourites to emerge as victors from the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) Zone Qualifiers against Nepal and Afghanistan this week, and anything less than victory would've been crushing dissapointment. Still, basketball games are not won on expectations alone, and the 'Young Cagers' - under the tutelage of new Head Coach Scott Flemming - still had to go out and get the job done. They did that all right, winning both their games in comfortable fashion at the Thyagraj Stadium in New Delhi from June 2-4. Thus, they sealed their qualification for the 2013 FIBA Asia Basketball Championship for Men and will be headed to Manila (Phillipines) for Asia's biggest basketball tournament in August.

Flemming, who was cautiously optimistic of India's chances, must be glad to see that he has had a successful start to his coaching campaign. After several months at camp, Flemming chose a 12-man roster that featured a healthy mix of experience and youth, and a whole lotta size, going into these qualifiers. Size hasn't always exactly been India's strength in international basketball fixtures, but with a flux of talented young bigs coming into the system, it seems that the future is a little brighter (and bigger).

India kicked off the three-team qualifying tournament against Nepal on June 2nd, in what turned out to be a stroll in the park. Without the size to match India's big men and the skill to keep up with their offense, Nepal fell behind after a close start and were never in the game again. At 13-8, it seemed Nepal may stick around in the contest, but India ended any chance of an upset as they scored 24 consecutive points. They held on to a mammoth 61-13 lead at halftime before pulling the breaks on their offense a little in the second period. Still, it was no mercy for the northern neighbours as India were able to give meaningful minutes to all 12 players and finish the evening with a 109-26 victory. Six Indians scored in double digits to showcase a balanced offense, with Punjabi big man Amrit Pal Singh leading the way with 17.

Nepal couldn't catch a break against Afghanistan the very next day, either. The Afghanis used their immense height and athleticism advantage to again break out a big lead and cruise to a 78-20 win.

This set up the expected do-or-die matchup between India and Afghanistan on June 4th, with the winner earning the right to represent the SABA Zone in the 27th FIBA Asia Championship from August 1-11, 2013. Although India were favoured, a victory was by no means guaranteed. Three years ago, Afghanistan famously defeated India in the South Asia Games basketball final, and India avenged the loss with a close but ugly victory later in that year at the Asian Games. Flemming had spoken earlier about the threat that Afghanistan possessed, and didn't want India to take them lightly.

Photo Credit: Gopalakrishnan R.
They didn't: India took an 18-9 lead in the first quarter and maintained a double digit advantage throughout. Although they couldn't score too easily against Afghanistan's bigs, they were still able to dominate the run of play. Flemming had been working hard in improving India's team defense, and the results of the hard work were on full display as they did a good job in disrupting Afghanistan's offensive flow. India had a comfortable 16 point lead at halftime and ended up winning the game 64-46. Going to their young bigs - Amrit Pal Singh and Amjyot Singh - proved fruitful to India. Point guard Joginder Singh also had a nice game and team captain Vishesh Bhriguvanshi had his usual all round performance despite a struggle shooting on the floor.

14 of total 16 teams have now punched in their tickets for Philippines and now await the tournament draw. The tournament was initially slated to be held in Lebanon, but the venue was changed due to security concerns from the Syrian civil war and the Middle East in general. India finished a disappointing 14th place in the 2011 FIBA ABC in Wuhan (China). With a better-looking talent pool and more concentrated efforts to improve, the Men have to aim for much greater heights. China will be defending their title, while Jordan, Korea, Iran, and hosts Philippines will hope to upset Asia's strongest side.

For now, let's celebrate India's qualification. The road ahead is only going to get tougher for Flemming and his team: we hope that they can build upon this start to give Asia's finest squads a shock or too in Manila.

A special shoutout to Gopalakrishnan R., a basketball writer with admirable passion for Indian hoops, who was on scene throughout the tournament and provided a comprehensive breakdown of all the games. Gopal did excellent live play-by-play commentary of the games and is also to be credited for the photograph above!

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