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What went wrong for Ben Uzoh and the Rivers Hoopers at the BAL?

Ben Uzoh was the BAL's star signing, but he and the Rivers Hoopers failed to impress and recorded just one win. Nicole Sweet/BAL/Basketball Africa League via Getty Images

Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers have never won an African title, and were one of the least experienced sides going into the Basketball Africa League, but they were still tipped to make a deep run, and even, maybe, win the tournament.

In the end, neither of those things happened. Instead, a side graced with the tournament's most experienced NBA player in Ben Uzoh, and featuring a number of international players, never got out the gate and Zamalek won the baobab-shaped trophy.

Hoopers, looking severely match-rusty, suffered two blowout losses in their opening two games. A 23-point collapse to hosts the Patriots in their first game was followed by a 29-point meltdown to eventual runners-up US Monastir, before they finally scrapped out an 80-69 win over Madagascar's GNBC in their final group game.

Although they finished as one of the best three losing teams, it was not enough to make it to the knockout phase, as only two teams could qualify via that route. The Nigeria side -- with a -41 points differential -- were edged out by Cameroon's FAP (+17) and Senegal's AS Douanes (-20).

But why were they so disappointing, when they should have been one of the stronger teams, on paper at least?

According to Uzoh, the team simply did not mesh, as he told ESPN: "With any team that you form, you want to try to get on the same page, get as familiar as possible to build a great chemistry.

"My expectations were for us to gel as quickly as possible, without making excuses for the [lack of] time that we had.

"Collectively, we tried to come together as best and as quickly as possible to try to put a better product out on the floor. Unfortunately it didn't come together as well as we would like. But I am thankful that we won a game."

Uzoh may have joined the team just days before the tournament, but the Hoopers were hardly a well-oiled machine in the first place.

They had not played competitive basketball since the 2017 season, due to in-fighting and rivalries between two camps trying to control the country's basketball federation.

To qualify for the BAL, they took part in and won the President's Cup tournament, organized in 2019 to select Nigeria's representatives for the competition.

Since then, there has been no domestic basketball for the Hoopers. This means the team had a grand total of two weeks of competitive basketball in four years coming into the BAL.

Team coach Ogoh Odaudu points to even more complications from within, starting with their relative inexperience.

"For most of my players, this was their first time on a stage like this," he said to ESPN. "It was really huge. I am not taking anything away from them, but they were a little bit overwhelmed.

"Also we on the management part, I don't think we really understood what this was going to be like.

"The bottom line is, we went to play against guys who had been playing basketball all this while. The team from Madagascar for instance, is basically made up of their national team.

"As early as February, they were playing AfroBasket qualifiers. Tunisia is the same thing, Egypt the same. So a lot of the people over there had actually played competitive basketball this year.

"For us, apart from the import players who had played at some point early this year with other clubs, nobody on this team had played competitive basketball since 2019.

"Which was no fault of ours. There was no league since 2019 when we played the President's Cup. I think that was the greatest reason for us not to do well.

"And then we had issues getting our import players to join us on time. They were all supposed to meet up with us on the same day.

"But the only person who had the time, like a week or so to practice with the team before we left for Kigali was Taren (Sullivan).

"Ben and Chris (Daniels) arrived a couple of days before our departure and only had two training sessions with us because of flight issues that were no fault of theirs."

Imports aside, some of the rustiness for the local players could have been ameliorated somewhat.

There was a chance for the Kingsmen to get some competitive game time in February by representing Rivers State at Nigeria's National Sports Festival, the country's mini Olympics. While those plans were initially agreed to, they eventually fell apart and the team stayed home.

Odaudu is convinced it would have helped: "One week of playing against teams like Gombe, Kano and Lagos would have made a big difference They would have known what it meant to actually play the game again after such a long time, but it just didn't work out."

Thankfully for Hoopers and the rest of the Nigerian basketball fraternity, the court case holding up the league has been dismissed. With that legal roadblock now out of the way, the stage is set for competitive basketball to return to Nigeria.

League resumption also brings a challenge to Hoopers' hopes of returning for the next edition, with Nigeria's top teams jostling to be Nigeria's next representatives at the continental showpiece.

Odaudu acknowledges that the challenge will be stiff, but says Hoopers have a leg up on the rest of the field: "All those teams have ended up not playing competitive basketball for a while. We have had the advantage of playing at the BAL.

"Just being in the midst of all that and watching the games, playing at that level and being in the midst of all that, I think has given us a little edge over all the other teams.

"Now everyone has seen what BAL is like. So every team's dream is to make it to the BAL. It makes our job twice as difficult. But we are going to do all that is within our power to get back to BAL because if we end up not qualifying, it takes us two or three years back.

"Whatever it takes, we are going to make sure the team is ready and hopefully, qualify for the next event."

Uzoh, though, says irrespective of who represents Nigeria, the goal should be to see the bigger picture. He said: "I made some brothers, I connected with some great people.

"I was able to give back to my country, The game is in a better place after this time we have spent together and we won a game. So all is just not lost. It is bigger than just us in this moment.

"The biggest thing is to understand that we are all ambassadors. That we all are carrying a torch that is bigger than us.

"Our situations no matter how dire, how unique they are, we are still people first and we still represent the country of Nigeria."