July 8, 2014

India trumps South Asian opponents to qualify for 23rd U18 FIBA Asia Championship

For several years, there have been two unspoken guarantees for India's international basketball scenario. The first is that India is the undisputed 'big brother' in the South Asian region, and can pretty much dominate its neighbours without breaking much of a sweat. The second is that, as the South Asian representative against the rest of Asia's big boys, the tables are turned when India takes part in big Asian tournaments. India become the minnows, and they suffer the same type of blowout losses that they have been delivering to their neighbours from South Asia.

Photo courtesy: Ekalavyas
To take the next step up towards making improvements in basketball, India has hopes to overturn the second 'unspoken guanrantee' mentioned above and start defeating top Asian teams. But, for a brief moment on Monday evening, it seemed that they might not even be able to ensure the first one. Sri Lanka pushed India to the brink for two and half quarters in the deciding game at the SABA Qualifiers last night, but a level-headed response from India to close out an emotional game saw them qualify for the U18 FIBA Asia Championship and gave the young players the test they needed to come together as a team.

By defeating Bangladesh and Sri Lanka on consecutive nights at the Koramangala Indoor Stadium in Bengaluru, India's U18 men's squad won the gold at the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) Qualifiers for the 23rd U18 FIBA Asia Championship. They will now represent South Asia at the U18 FIBA Asia tournament, set to be held in Doha (Qatar) from August 19-29 this year.

Only three teams - hosts India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh - took part in the SABA Qualifiers, which were held in Bengaluru from July 5-7 and organized by the Karnataka State Basketball Association (KSBBA). India's 12-member squad was led by coach Jora Singh Ghulia and featured up-and-coming names such as Mahipal Singh, Akhilesh Kumar, Gurvinder Singh Gill, K. Sunil, and Narender Rathee.

Photo courtesy: Ekalavyas
Sri Lanka - who haven't qualified for the FIBA Asia U18 Championship - made their ambitions clear from the start, as they demolished Bangladesh by 90 points in the first game of the qualifiers. A multi-pronged attack led by Anthony P (35 points) saw Sri Lanka cruise to a 126-36 win. Umair Md Naleer (19), Nadeeja Liyanage Nichula (19), Dimitri Sean Grebe (17), and Anushka Chathuranga (17) aided Sri Lanka's high-scoring efforts, while Bangladesh were led with 16 points by Hasan Mohd.

Team India got their start against Bangladesh on July 6th, in a game where the hosts took a big early lead (37-2 in the explosive first quarter) and then cruised the rest of the way to the easy victory. The duo of captain Gurvinder Singh Gill (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Mahipal Singh (16) were the high scorers for India.

The final showdown eventually came down to the winners of the past two games - India and Sri Lanka - to decide who would be the SABA representative in Doha next month. Sri Lanka, shorter in size but quicker in speed and firing on all cylinders from the perimeter, came out all guns blazing, taking the game to India with an 11-1 early lead. India recovered from the neighbours' early aggressiveness and came back to tie the game at the end of the first quarter. India stretched it out to a 10 point lead at halftime, but Sri Lanka plotted a comeback once more.

Photo courtesy: Ekalavyas
A scuffle broke out between several players on both sides midway in the third quarter - India's star Gill was ejected and Sri Lanka lost Kashi Juliyan. Luckily for India, Mahipal Singh took charge and helped the team close out their opponents over the next quarter. The final score read 85-60 in India's favour. Mahipal led the way with 32 points and 10 rebounds while K. Sunil added 19. The leading scorer for Sri Lanka was Mohd. Naleer Umair (16).

India could be blamed for a little overconfidence before the qualifiers began, but the Sri Lanka game was just the wake-up call that they needed. Opponents in Qatar are going to get a lot tougher, and India will have to sharpen several of their errors to mount a serious challenge. From July 12 - August 6, the team is scheduled to be in a national coaching camp at the SAI Center in Aurangabad, following which there are plans for a short exposure trip where the team can take part in friendly/practice games.

Hopefully, the camp and the friendlies over the next month can prepare India's U18s for the bigger challenge ahead. These young players are going to be the future stars of the country, and it will be up to them to ensure that India can move up from being just the minnows in big Asian competitions and start surprising a big team or two.

Check out Ekalavyas.com for more in-depth match reports from the qualifiers and relive the play-by-play live commentary as well.

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