Nigeria's D'Tigress battle off-court drama to qualify for Paris Olympics hoops

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Nigeria's women's basketball team have qualified for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, but they had to battle past obstacles on the court -- beating Senegal for the spot -- and off it, as a funding issue once again reared its ugly head.

At the FIBA Olympic Women's Qualifying tournament in Belgium, Nigeria's campaign was fraught with more battles than even they would have expected, which is saying a lot for a team that has become used to scrapping every step of the way.

This was one they had to dig deep for, especially after the disappointment of seeing administrative politicking deny them a chance to play at the 2023 FIBA World Cup.

Drawn in a qualifying group that included world champions USA, hosts and European champions Belgium, along with serial African champions and rivals Senegal, this was a tough ride.

There were two places available, with the USA already qualified by virtue of being world champions. So, in effect, the competition was really a three-way fight for two spots.

For Nigeria and Senegal, it was essentially a battle of winner takes all, as neither side were realistically expected to beat the USA [beat Nigeria 100-46] or Belgium [won 78-61].

But it would not be Nigeria if they did not pile boulder-sized stumbling block after stumbling block in their own way. As usual, the major problems were tied to a lack of government funding.

To start with, the team had only two days to practice before the tournament because there was no money to organize a proper training camp. Opponents Senegal, by contrast, had been preparing for months prior.

"They only had two days of camping before this tournament," NBBF Vice president Babs Ogunade told ESPN. "Senegal have been camping for almost six months.

"We struggled to get the girls to Belgium. They were almost not allowed to play by the Belgian federation because we had to make payments for the hotel first and we did not have the money.

"FIBA had to sign a guarantee and pay for us before they could allow them. We have still not paid but we have to pay them back."

Additionally, Ogunade said the two players and team officials heading to the tournament from Nigeria were initially denied visas by the Belgian Embassy, forcing the federation to hire a temporary medical team in Belgium.

Ogunade added: "Our visa applications were accompanied by a letter from FIBA with a list of names and details of the competition. Still, they denied us at first.

"Luckily for us, we had 10 players from Europe, three from America and only had two players going from Nigeria, but the denial affected our medical team and administrative officials.

"We had to make a Plan B to leave everyone here and hire a doctor and physiotherapist from Europe and that is exactly what happened."

The stand-off against Senegal went Nigeria's way in the end, despite all the obstacles. Nigeria started well, but fell off a bit in the first half and almost saw Senegal take the win. With 10 minutes to go, D'Tigress were trailing 57-49 and looking sapped.

But led by Amy Okonkwo's energizing 21 points and 10 rebounds, they dug deep and surged to an 11-0 run in the fourth quarter to swing the momentum, and the contest, back firmly in their favour as they clawed their way to a 72-65 victory.

Team captain Sarah Ogoke, whose leadership and experience is a vital part of the team's success, spoke after the win about her personal obstacles ahead of the tournament, making the advancement to Paris all the sweeter.

Ogoke said: "While I'm preoccupied with this huge sports event, add that in less than three weeks I'll find out if I passed the Part 2 American Podiatric Medical Licensing Exam (APMLE), and in one week I'll be interviewing for surgical residency positions to get my first job as a doctor. No pressure, right?"

But hard as that was, it paled in significance compared to the tough situation at home, with her father battling cancer while she made them tough decision to go represent her country.

The veteran guard added: "My father has been ill for a while and that is why I am so happy to have won this game at this tournament. There are a lot of people who are battling cancer out there and it is a tough fight, but anything is possible.

"It's not easy being away from him at all. But that is part of the game. Regardless of what is going on in the outside world, you have to find a way to get things done."

Ogoke eventually had to leave the team before the final game against Belgium, returning to be with her father: "My heart is full and I am so proud of how D'Tigress fought against the Belgium Cats.

"Watching them apply pressure, scramble, rebound, and hit tough shots uplifted my spirits as I watched the match in the plane back home to be by my father's bedside."

Senegal were not expected to be an easy opponents, said Amy Okonkwo: "I am just so proud of my team. We fought through adversity, being down in the first half but we knew when we came together and listened to our coach and executed that it would be a different game and I am just so proud of how we upped our energy and intensity and got it done.

"We have so much heart, we have so much fight in us. We care so much and we want to be able to represent our country the best way we know how.

"When you think of Nigerian, you think of warriors, you think of fighting, you think of strong. In my mind, anyway. And I think that we embodied that.

"Dauntless means fearless, it means looking in front of you, looking your opponent in the eye and seeing that you are capable of anything and I want us to continue to embody that word."

The draw for the Olympic basketball groups will take place on March 19 in Switzerland.