November 8, 2015

Korea win 2015 FIBA Asia U16 title in Jakarta; India drop to 13th place

Korea's youth team have emerged among Asia's best and given a ray of hope for the future of the nation's basketball programme. At the 2015 FIBA Asia U16 Basketball Championship (FIBA U16 ABC) in Jakarta (Indonesia), Korea ended China's monopoly at the top of the tournament's standings at the semi-final stage, and followed it up with a victory in the Final against Chinese Taipei on Saturday, November 7. This was Korea's first title at the tournament, and the first time that anyone other than China has won the FIBA U16 ABC after four iterations of the tournament.

The tournament was held from October 29 to November 7 and featured 15 teams (should've been 16 but North Korea pulled out) including India. India's U16 team ended the tournament with a 2-3 record and dropped to 13th place.

Korea were still buzzing after ousting China at the semi-final stage, but their energy was matched by Chinese Taipei's youngsters in the Final. For the first half, there was little to separate the two teams, as Chinese Taipei held on to a slim 31-30 lead at halftime. But Korea pushed into an extra gear in the third quarter, outscoring Chinese Taipei 28-15 in a stretch that ultimately proved to be the difference. Lee Junghyn and Minwoo Park both scored 17 apiece to lead Korea's march to a 78-69 victory. Minsuk Shin added 16. Lin Ting-Chien was Taipei's highest scorer with 19.

Both the finalists qualified for the 2016 U17 FIBA World Championship in Spain, as did China, who finished third in the tournament.

China took out the frustrations of their semi-final loss in the Bronze-Medal game earlier on Saturday against Japan. Led by Rui Wang (22) and Jie Xu (20), China blew the game open in the second quarter. Their 13-point halftime lead was unassailable for the Japanese as China stretched their lead to a 80-58 win. Yudat Nishida scored 18 in a losing effort for Japan.

Both the semi-finals on Friday were memorable contests between the remaining East Asian teams in the tournament. Korean captain Jae-Min Yang exploded for 30 points as his team edged China 90-84 in an entertaining, high-scoring contest. Minsuk Shin dropped 21 for Korea while Junghyun Lee added 18. China's duo of Rui Wang (20) and captain Yibo Wang (17) couldn't do enough to stop Korea from turning a three-point halftime deficit into a six-point victory. In the earlier semi-final, Chinese Taipei survived a late flurry by Japan to win 60-57 and book their ticket in the final. After a close first half, Chinese Taipei created some separation between the two teams in the third period, and held on to their lead just in time for the final buzzer. Wei-Chieh Tang of Taipei led all scorers with 21.

At the start of the tournament's Preliminary Round, India found themselves in a tough Group D, which featured two semi-finalists - Korea and China - as well as Iraq. The team was led by Head Coach Mahendar Singh Rathore and captained by rising young star Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi from Tamil Nadu.

India's start - against threepeat winners China - was not pretty. Despite a good offensive showing in the first quarter, India were helpless to put a roadblock on China's onslaught on the other end of the floor. China outscored India by double digits in each quarter and raced to a comfortable 116-57 win. Rongqi Huang scored 22 to pace China, while Poiyamozhi - a 5-foot-11 undersized forward - had 18 for India.

Facing the eventual champions Korea the following day, India were determined to correct the previous day's mistakes and put up a more respectable showing. Despite a 19-point loss, India played one of their best games on the tournament. Korea had a three-point lead at the end of the first quarter, which they opened up to 12 by halftime. But an offensive explosion in the third had India down by just 8 before the start of the final period with dreams of an upset. Alas, Korea showed their class in the decisive fourth, outscoring India 28-17, and cruising to a 104-85 win. The Korean duo of Jae-Min Yang (25 points, 12 rebounds), Sechan Seomoon (22), and Hyunjung Lee (19) were a handful for India all game, but it was Indian captain Poiyamozhi that truly stole the show, totaling his tournament-best 33 points to go with 10 rebounds for India in the loss. Adarsh Jayakumar aided his effort with 23.

India followed the encouraging performance with a dud against Iraq, in what would've been their most-winnable game of the Preliminary Stage. Despite ranking higher than Iraq, India came out flat and allowed Iraq to lead by double digits early in the game. India had no answer for Iraq's Abdullah Abdullah, who exploded for 39 points and 6 rebounds in an impressive solo performance that helped his squad win 90-69. Abbas Al-Qarnawi added 16 for the winning side. Poiyamozhi was again India's top man, scoring 26 points in a losing effort, while his teammate Ankit Joshi scored 24.

By finishing last in their group, India failed to qualify for the tournament's Second Round and had to settle for 13-16th place classification games. They received a 'bye' win 20-0 against the absent North Korea in the first game.

India's first and only 'real' win of the tournament was in their last game against Hong Kong. After gaining an extra day's rest because of North Korea's no-show, India played with an extra skip in their step in the second and third quarters of the game versus Hong Kong, outscoring their opponents by 16 in that crucial 20 minute stretch. Three Indians touched 20 in this encouraging 80-70 win, led as always by Poiyamozhi (22 points, 8 rebounds), Ankit Joshi (20 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists), and Adarsh Jayakumar (20 points, 7 rebounds). Hong Kong's captain Yiu Pong Yip scored a team-high 21.

India ended the tournament at 13th place, dropping two spots after finishing 11th in 2013.

It was a tournament of ups and downs for the young, relatively inexperienced Indians. The performances against Korea and the finale versus Hong Kong showed the potential of many of players, as individuals and as a collective. But the loss against Iraq will be remembered as the tournament's big tipping point for India. They can also consider themselves lucky to earn a win without playing against North Korea, although an extra game would've always been useful to provide more exposure to the players.

The big story for India was of course the star captain Baladhaeshwar Poiyamozhi. After dominating the youth and sub-junior levels for Tamil Nadu in recent years, Poiyamozhi was a force to be reckoned with in his first big international tournament for India. He finished as India's leading scorer (24.8 ppg) and rebounder (6.2 rpg) and was second in assists (3.5 apg) and would've finished as among the leading scorer in the entire tournament had India played more games. The little forward plays much bigger than his size, and hopefully has a bright future ahead of him for the country. India also got encouraging performances by Ankit Joshi (13.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Adarsh Jayakumar (14.2 ppg) and Manoj Sisodiya.

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