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Mike Brown's influence propels Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers to second Basketball Africa League

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Rivers Hoopers have qualified to take their place at the Basketball Africa League's second edition as Nigeria's representatives, after they easily emerged as champions of the country's Super 8 tournament.

The Kingsmen swept through the opposition, racking up a 5-0 record at the Super 8 to add to the 8-0 they amassed in the first phase of the domestic competition earlier in the year.

The champions of Angola, Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, and Tunisia's local leagues qualify automatically to the BAL proper, while the six other sides will be determined by an Elite 16 competition.

The Hoopers' final win came against bitter rivals Gombe Bulls, with the 74-57 score a dominant reflection of the gulf in class between the Hoopers and other teams in the country. That win meant Hoopers extended their winning streak in the Nigerian league to 25 games, going all the way back to 2017.

Hoopers head coach Ogoh Odaudu, who was part of the Nigeria national team coaching staff under Mike Brown, told ESPN that his team's performance was down to the lessons picked up under the Golden State Warriors associate head coach.

"The number of things I learnt from him is unquantifiable," Odaodu said. "It was like I was in school when I was at the AfroBasket camp, because Mike Brown is just an encyclopaedia of basketball, he has so much in his head.

"I tried to inculcate a lot of the things I learnt from him to this team and I can say he was a great part of what we achieved because lot of things we were running at the tournament are things I learnt from him in the Nigeria camp."

Odaodu pointed to two key things that Brown's coaching helped with: "We were too slow as a team. But in the camp, he was emphasizing our pace and spacing, which are the two major things that we actually brought to the tournament that made us invincible to other teams."

Benjamin Ikechukwu, who was one of four players from the domestic league in the D'Tigers AfroBasket team, played a huge part in getting Hoopers all the way, consistently leading the team in points scored.

He also credited Brown with his improvement, telling ESPN: "Having the opportunity to train under an NBA coach like Mike Brown helped me a lot.

"He showed me some stuff that I didn't know before. That extra confidence to show what I learnt from Kigali [at the first BAL edition] also helped me in the league."

The qualification went a long way to clear the clouds surrounding the team's participation at the inaugural tournament, proving they were indeed the strongest side in the country.

Kano Pillars and Gombe Bulls, two of the strongest teams in the Nigerian league, were absent from the President's Cup that Hoopers won to seal their ticket to the first BAL.

"It would have been embarrassing [to not qualify] because we would have confirmed what people have been saying, that we went to the BAL because Gombe Bulls and Kano Pillars were not there," Odaodu said.

"The challenge for us was more of confirming that we are champions and not just qualifying for BAL. In that sense, this was actually a more significant tournament for us because of that fact.

"It would have been nice if we got to play Kano Pillars and hopefully beat them too. But of course, the team that beat them, we beat them twice. So, this goes a long way to show that we deserve to be champions."

Actually going to the BAL, however, is not a certainty. At least not yet.

Nigerian basketball is still in crisis mode. The tenure of the NBBF board, led by Musa Kida expired this year, and the Nigeria Sports Ministry took the extraordinary step of dissolving the board and setting up a caretaker committee, led by Kida.

That committee was then also dissolved by the ministry and directed to hand over its affairs to a Task Force under the office of the minister, a decision that Kida appealed to FIBA about.

FIBA ruled that the dissolved board must continue to run the affairs of the NBBF until elections are held.

But the Super 8 tournament was organized by the Task Force and disavowed by Kida, who warned teams that only a nomination from the FIBA-recognized NBBF would be honored for participation at the BAL.

"No nomination, whether at the club or national team level, will be honored except if it comes from the duly recognized Nigeria Basketball Federation board until such a time that a constitutionally binding election will be held," Kida said in a statement.

He went on to suggest that the NBBF might organize another tournament: "We are not stopping any team from participating in any competition anywhere across the country. We have always desired more games for our players and we encourage them to take advantage of any competition to get ready for the Final 8."

Sources have however told ESPN that a combination of funding issues and a potential compromise between Kida and the ministry could see Hoopers presented as Nigeria's representatives regardless.

In the meantime, the Kingsmen will enjoy their victory and plan their BAL redemption.