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Suddenly, D’Tigers are Tokyo 2020 basketball medal contenders

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LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – JULY 12: KZ Okpala #0 of Nigeria brings the ball up the court against Argentina ahead of teammates Josh Okogie #20 and Precious Achiuwa #55 during an exhibition game at Michelob ULTRA Arena ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 12, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Nigeria defeated Argentina 94-71. Ethan Miller/Getty Images/AFP/Ethan Miller / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

• Beat Argentina 94-71, meet Australia today
For the first time in the history of the beautiful game, an African country is being rated among the medals prospects in global contest. Basketball has been the sole preserve of the United States and European countries with no African country ever getting close to the last 16 of any major championship.

The highest any African country has placed in a major championship is D’Tigers’ 17th position at the FIBA World Cup in China in 2019. But all that seems to be about to change with the sudden performance of the Nigerian national team, a few days to the tip off of Tokyo 2020 Games.

When Mike Brown’s team defeated the United States 90-87 in an exhibition match in Las Vegas on Sunday morning, pundits saw it as a big upset, which happened because the U.S. team was not on full force due to the NBA play-offs.

Although some attributed the win to the growing stature of Nigeria in the game, there were some who saw it as a pre-championship bravado, which normally amounts to nothing when the chips are down. But opinions have shifted so much with D’Tigers blow out defeat of world’s number four-ranked team, Argentina, yesterday.

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D’Tigers looked even better the game against Argentina, which they won 94-71. The group defended hard and played together once again, led by Jahlil Okafor’s 15 points and seven rebounds on 7-8 shooting from the floor.

Brown has instilled a defense first, make the right play on offense type approach in his team, as Nigeria only shot 25.8 per cent from three point distance, but trusted their mindset and won by 23 points.

Nigeria’s togetherness is the main ingredient in the team’s two pre-Olympics successes.

The Nigerian team, made up of little known NBA stars and a trickle of Europe based players, showed guts never seen in an African team against the mighty Americans in their first game. In the process, Nigeria’s 90-87 win removed the aura of invincibility that has been associated with the American All-Star cast.

Before Sunday’s defeat, the U.S. had lost only 11 games in major international play —Olympics and World Cups, mostly — since NBA players joined the American team with the first Dream Team in 1992. None of those losses came against a team from Africa.

“We just wanted to compete,” said Nigeria’s Gabe Nnamdi, who goes by Gabe Vincent when playing for the Miami Heat. “We know what USA Basketball means around the world and what they’ve stood for for so long.”

Nnamdi led Nigeria with 21 points. Caleb Agada scored 17 points, Ike Nwamu added 13 and Nigeria outscored the U.S. 60-30 from 3-point range.

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Kevin Durant, who had never played in a loss for USA Basketball in 39 senior international games, had 17 points. Jayson Tatum added 15, Damian Lillard had 14 and Bam Adebayo 11.

On his side’s loss, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said: “I thought that the Nigerian team played very physically, did a great job in that regard and knocked down a lot of 3s.”

The Americans had gone 39-0 in their last three Olympic seasons, including pre-Olympic exhibitions, on their way to gold medals and had been 54-2 in major exhibitions since NBA players began playing for USA Basketball in 1992. Plus, they’d beaten Nigeria by a combined 127 points in their last two meetings, one at the 2012 London Games, the other a warm up for the 2016 Rio Games.

Nigeria lost to the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics by 83 points. Lost to the Americans again four years later in an exhibition, that time by 44 points.

With the 2020 Olympic Games getting closer, D’Tigers centre, Jahlil Okafor, says the big wins against U.S. and Argentina is a morale booster for what they hope to achieve in Tokyo.

The Detroit Pistons big man made his announcement on the international stage with a bang after missing the game against U.S.

Okafor scored 15 points and had seven rebounds on his debut for Nigeria on a night that D’Tigers defeated the fourth ranked team 94-71 points.

“It gives all of us the confidence to go out there and perform at a high level just like we did against USA and Argentina.”

Okafor said it has been fun working with a set of talented Nigerians who are keen to daily build something that Nigerians home and abroad will be proud of.

On how he was able to make an impact for the team during the friendly game against Argentina, Okafor said, “My team gives me all the confidence. They tell me to go out there and be aggressive, he myself and have fun.

“After the big win against USA and against Argentina, the message was to take care of business and avoid any let down,” Okafor revealed.

The team continues its pre-competition preparations with a friendly against group opponent, Australia, today.

Nigeria is grouped alongside Germany, Australia and Italy for the Olympics, which tips off on July 25 and ends on August 7, 2021.

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Now among the optimists in the Nigerian camp, Sports Minister, Sunday Dare, describes the wins as a sign of the things to expect from D’Tigers in Tokyo.

Dare, who congratulating the team for rising to the occasion at the right time, said, “Our players showed up for business and took care of business. Their performance in just these two games signposts the future of basketball in Nigeria. I salute and commend their patriotism and the courage and confidence they have brought to the game. You continue to make Nigeria proud.”

Today’s exhibition game against Australia is yet another stiff test for D’Tigers.

The Australians sent notice it will be a strong medal contender at the upcoming Olympics Team U.S. 91-83 in Las Vegas on Monday night.

Like Nigeria, Australia went into the match as massive underdogs against a line-up full of NBA stars.

Nigeria begins its campaign against Australia on July 7 and face Germany three days later before playing Italy in their final group game on Saturday July 31.

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