By Mukwuzi Joseph
Nigeria’s national women’s basketball team, D’Tigress, on Tuesday lost 81-72 to the United States in their Olympic Games opener in Saitama.
It was a brave performance from the African champions who were recently beaten by these same Americans 93-62 in an exhibition game in Las Vegas.
Since losing in the quarterfinals of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the US women have dominated the opposition. Before Tuesday’s game against Nigeria, the Americans have taken the court at the Olympic Games 49 times, and 49 times, they’ve left the floor as winners.
That impressive record is now 50 wins in a row, but they will be asking themselves how a team they defeated by 31 points less than two weeks ago, came close to creating the greatest upset in Olympic women’s basketball history.
D’Tigress made an impressive 8-1 start, forcing the US to turn the ball over several times, but the defending champions soon found a way around Nigeria’s full-court press and eventually went into a 9-8 lead with just under five minutes left in the opening quarter.
By the 2:12 mark, both sides were tied 16-16 and in foul trouble, and D’Tigress were soon back in the lead when Ify Ibekwe dropped a free throw to put Nigeria up 17-16.
After a successful free-throw restored parity at 17-17, Ibekwe dropped a three at the buzzer to give Nigeria a shock 20-17 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Promise Amukamara soon joined in the 3-point party with a successful attempt at the start of the second quarter to put Nigeria further ahead. She soon added a pull-up jumper but the US soon found a way back as Breanna Stewart dropped two free throws to level the score at 25-all.
Diana Taurasi then dropped a three to put the US in front and they didn’t look back from that point, finishing the half 12 points in front after Adaora Elonu cut the deficit with a 3-point shot from downtown at the buzzer as the half ended 44-32 in favour of the US.
The US’ 12-point lead increased to 20 at the end of the third quarter as the Americans used their size advantage to subdue the Nigerians, particularly in the low post where the trio of A’ja Wilson, Griner, and Stewart reigned supreme.
But a fourth-quarter revival by D’Tigress saw the Nigerians at a point reducing the deficit to five points before a late surge from Team USA rescued the day for the defending champions who on Friday will face a Japanese team that staged a second-half comeback to defeat France 74-70 earlier in the day.
Friday will also see D’Tigress take on France in a game that, based on their performance against the Americans, could see the Nigerians recording their first victory at the Olympics since the 2004 Athens Olympics when a D’Tigress side led by the legendary Mfon Udoka defeated South Korea 68-64.
Aisha Mohammed-Balarabe, who is one of the centres in the current D’Tigress team, recorded a game-leading 13 rebounds in that match played 17 years ago.