September 20, 2016

2016 FIBA Asia Challenge: Iran win for 3rd straight time; India have best performance in 27 years!

The headlines from the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge - deservedly - will be about Iran. Led by Hamed Hadadi's continuing brilliance, Iran won the tournament (previously known as the FIBA Asia Cup and the FIBA Asia Stankovic Cup) for the third straight time, this time defending the crown as the tournament's hosts. Iran were nearly flawless throughout the 10-day tournament and put the cherry on top of their dominance with an impressive 77-47 victory over Korea in the final on Sunday, September 18, at the Azadi Sports Complex in Tehran.

But there was much more to this tournament than the headlines. Cushioned between the mid-tier teams at 7th place, the Indian Men's Team return from Tehran after one of their finest international basketball basketball performance in decades. Entering the 12-team tournament as one of the underdogs, India upset several higher-ranked teams and announced - once and for all - that they will be a threat in the Asian basketball circuit for the foreseeable future.

The tournament ended on Sunday with Iran - hosts and reigning champs from 2014 in Wuhan - defeating Korea with a monstrous, 20-point, 23-rebound performance by Hadadi. After a tense, low-scoring first quarter, Iran opened up a ten point lead at halftime, and then completely dominated after the break, outscoring Korea 47-27 in the third and fourth quarters. Hadadi's performance took his overall tournament averages to 18 points and 13.8 rebounds per game.

Earlier in the final day, Jordan started off strong against Iraq to run away to a 94-72 victory and win the bronze medal. Jordan's Darquavis Tucker led all scorers with 19.

A day earlier, Jordan had fallen victim to Iran in the semi-final 74-63, giving them one of their only close matchups of the entire tournament. The game was led by the usual suspects: Hadadi had 26 points and 20 points for Iran while Tucker scored 25 for Jordan. Korea defeated Iraq 78-72 in the second semi-final which came down to the wire. Iraq held a surprising two-point lead at the end of the third and only a final period surge helped see Korea through to the final. Seonghoon Lee (22) and Ilyoung Heo (18) were the leading scorers for Korea, while Iraq were paced by Mohammed Al-Khafaji (17) and Kevin Galloway (16).

The FIBA Asia Challenge is the second-most prestigious tournament in the continent, and because of its secondary status, many of the top teams like China and Philippines chose to send younger or less experienced teams to Tehran. Due to this, there were several major upsets in the tournament, and both China and Philippines - ranked 1 and 3 in the Asia - didn't make it to the Semi-Final stage.

While the others rested, India rose. Although they were denied the services of NBA D-League chasing Satnam Singh and Palpreet Singh, players from the UBA League, and the injured duo of Arvind Arumugam and Aravind Annadurai, India sent the best of the available options. The lineup including the country's superb 'Big Three' of captain and center Amrit Pal Singh, superstar forward Amjyot Singh, and veteran guard Vishesh Bhriguvanshi. Flanking around the top three were the point guard duo of Akilan Pari and TJ Sahi, experienced forward Yadwinder Singh, and important role-players Prasanna Sivakumar and Rikin Pethani. Coached by Sat Prakash Yadav and CV Sunny, India were ready for the challenge, and their inspirational performances eventually earned them laurels and respect like never before.

In the Preliminary Round stage, India were grouped with Philippines and Chinese Taipei. The opener against the Philippines turned out to be just the confidence boost that India needed. The Philippines had sent an inexperienced squad to Tehran, and India took full advantage. After trailing by five in the first quarter, India dominated proceedings, outscoring their opponents in the second and third by double digits, and eventually, holding off a late game rally to win 91-83. It was a historic moment for India, as they hadn't defeated the Philippines at the senior stage for decades. The Big Three didn't disappoint: Amjyot Singh was marvelous with 24 points and 18 rebounds, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi scored 20, and Amrit Pal Singh added 16 points to go with 8 boards.

But India got a major reality check the next day against Chinese Taipei. After staying with arm's length at the end of third quarter, India lost their composure in the third and a 26-15 run for the opponents settled the game for good. Taipei went out to win by a blowout, 90-66, led by 18 points and 14 rebounds by Quincy Davis and 23 by Yi-Hsiang Chou. While most of the team struggled, Bhriguvanshi carried India's load in the losing effort with a valiant 34 points.

India then entered Second Round Group E carrying a 1-1 record when they faced eventual semi-finalists Jordan. This turned out to be one of the worst-ever performances by India. The lackluster team came out slowly from the gates and fell into a 37-17 pit by the end of the first quarter. Jordan's offense was irresistible all game, and the likes of Sinan Eid (19), Darquavis Tucker (17), Sami Bzai (17) and Zaid Abbas (17) were too much for India to handle. Jordan went on to win the game 121-65.

However, even after the hard fall, India bounced right back up, in the most spectacular of fashions. Two years after upsetting China in the legendary 'Wonder of Wuhan' when the tournament used to be called the FIBA Asia Cup, India faced them again. China was without most of their Olympics team, but still packed a punch and were undefeated thus far in Tehran. But India were not deterred. The duo of Amrit Pal Singh (23 points, 14 rebounds) and Amjyot Singh (16 points, 8 rebounds) dominated the interior in the close, back-and-forth game. India made up for a first quarter deficit to take a two point lead into halftime. They maintained their composure through the second half, and held on in the close finale to upset China - Asia's top-ranked team - once more, 70-64. Jinqiu Hu scored 19 for the losing side.

India were now guaranteed a Quarter-Final spot, and carried on their new confidence to their final Second Round game against Kazakhstan. It was a competition between two big teams, but the smallest guy on court became the most valuable of the night. India's point guard TJ Sahi hit six threes in a 14-minute stretch in the first half to give India a 51-43 lead. India allowed Kazakhstan to catch up and tie the game in another weak third quarter, but they finished in style to win 100-90, their highest-scoring game at the tournament. Sahi finished the game with 32 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists, while Amrit Pal added 28 points and 7 rebounds. Kazakhstan were led by Mikhail Yevstigneyev (30) and Pavel Micheev (22).

Despite their strong performances, India finished fourth in Group E, an effect of the huge loss to Jordan. This handed them the toughest Quarter-Final matchup, against the loaded Iran squad. India stayed competitive for the first half while Iran led just 38-31. But the home team revved into top gear in the second half, relying on a huge 26-2 third quarter run to blow India out and secure a 77-47 win. Hadadi was the difference maker on the inside with 17 points and 23 rebounds. Oshin Sahakian added 16 for Iran.

Out of the tournament, India still had some work to do as they were placed in the 5th-8th place around. Their first game was against Japan, but a slow start proved costly for India. Japan took a 22-14 first quarter lead, and despite staying neck-to-neck with the opponents for the rest of the game, India couldn't close the game and lost 77-66. Ira Brown had 20 points and 14 rebounds for Japan, battling in the middle against Amrit Pal who notched up 22 and 14. Japan's Makojo Hiejima added 19 while India's Amjyot scored 18.

India's last game in Tehran was a rematch against their Preliminary Round opponents Chinese Taipei, and this time, India was out for revenge! Taipei led 22-17 in the first quarter, but India bounced right back to take a 33-32 lead into halftime. The game remained close until the final period, when India once again showed their ability to remain calm under pressure, as they outscored Taipei 28-18 in the fourth quarter to notch yet another huge upset victory, 80-68. Vishesh Bhriguvanshi was the star for India with 22 while Rikin Pethani stepped up in the absence of the ailing Amjyot to score 17 with 9 rebounds. Taipei, who lost captain Liu Ching earlier in the tournament to injury, were led by Yu-An Chiang (16) in the loss.

This finish saw India end the tournament at 7th place, a repeat of the previous iteration of this tournament, but with an impressive 4-4 record that included victories over China, Philippines, Chinese Taipei, and Kazakhstan. The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) declared this the best-ever finish for India since the 6th place finish at the 1989 FIBA Asia Championship. This is also the only time when India has beaten 3 higher ranked sides (China, Philippines and Taipei) in the same event. The performance marked India's rapid pace to improvement, as the team finished 8th in last year's FIBA Asia Championship, their best finish in 12 years.

From an individual performance standpoint, India’s ‘Big Three’ of centre Amrit Pal Singh, power forward Amjyot Singh and shooting guard Vishesh Bhriguvanshi have reaffirmed their status as one of Asia’s best players in their respective positions. Amrit Pal led India in scoring (17.8 ppg) and rebounds (10.4 rpg - 4th best overall in the tournament). Bhriguvanshi added 16.9 ppg and 3.8 assists per game (fifth-best overall). Amjyot notched in with averages of 12.8 ppg and 8.2 rpg. The three stars were top three for India in all three major statistical categories: scoring, rebounds, and assists. Guard TJ Sahi scored 11 ppg, too, with most of this scoring coming in the outburst against Kazakhstan.

Recognising the significance of this performance, the BFI's President K Govindaraj announced a cash prize of INR 5,00,000/- to the entire team and coaching staff.

"Reaching the top 7 in Asia is an excellent achievement, especially considering the circumstances and opponents," said Govindraj. "We beat three teams who have better world rankings. This cash prize is a small token of appreciation for our players’ indomitable spirit. They have kept India’s flag flying high. This is a culmination of all that sacrifice by everybody involved."

"It is important to remember that even though our national federation has approval from the international body i.e. FIBA, we have not received any government funding for almost two years now," Govindraj added, "In spite of this we have been able to send our national teams for participation in ten international events and conducted all the National Championships."

BFI Secretary Chander Mukhi Sharma said, "Prior to the team’s departure, I had wished that the players put up a performance that is even better than in all the previous championships they have attended. They have superbly delivered."

Govindraj's comments are true. Because of rift between the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports with the BFI, the basketball federation has operated independently of support and funding from the government for one and a half years now. It is truly a testament to India's star players - who we may well remember as a golden generation - that they have continued to perform so well and improve against Asia's toughest teams.

Reflecting on the side’s performance, Head Coach Yadav said, “The Indian team has earned lots of appreciation from FIBA President (Horacio Moratore) and other officials as well as from other good teams in Asia. This time around we have focused especially on defence and were able to successfully execute our tactics as practiced in the training camps. Our boys and India overall are now confident about taking on any challenge in the near future. This achievement does not belong to a single person but was a good team effort by all."

“It feels good and I’m happy with the performance," added Bhriguvanshi. "We can still do a lot better in the upcoming tournaments and I hope we will continue with this energy and morale."

Despite the domestic uncertainties, these are truly glory days for Indian Basketball. The current team is definitely the best collection of Indian Men's basketball talent that I have witnessed in my adult lifetime, and clearly the best Indian squad since the "golden generation" - led by Ajmer Singh - of the 70s and 80s. However, if the likes of Amrit Pal, Amjyot, Vishesh, continue to improve, this team could have a lot more success scripted in the future. Hopefully, players like India's first NBA-draftee Satnam Singh (who will be playing for the D-League's Texas Legends) this season can contribute to the national team in the future. If India can add a few more solid pieces to the rotation - particularly the backcourt - they can have legitimate dreams of repeating this performance at next year's prestigious 2017 FIBA Asia Cup, which will be the highest-level of basketball competition in Asia.

Final Standings
  • 1. Iran
  • 2. Korea
  • 3. Jordan
  • 4. Iraq
  • 5. China

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