Aliou Diarra stars as FUS Rabat secure top seed for Basketball Africa League knockouts

Aliou Diarra starred for FUS Rabat as they secured the No. 1 seed for the Basketball Africa League knockout rounds. Julien Bacot/NBAE via Getty Images

KIGALI, Rwanda -- Morocco's FUS Rabat claimed the No. 1 seed ahead of the Basketball Africa League knockout rounds, beating Egypt's Al Ahly 89-78 in the classification round on Friday thanks largely to an inspired performance from Aliou Diarra, who got 21 points and 10 rebounds.

They will play South Africa's Cape Town Tigers -- who earlier lost 87-76 to Libya's Al Ahly Benghazi -- in the quarterfinals. Ahly Benghazi will be the No. 7 seed for the quarters and will play their Egyptian namesakes, the No. 2 seed. Both matchups will take place on Sunday.

In the early tip-off, Ahly Benghazi took a 9-0 lead but the Tigers fought back brilliantly to take a 25-21 lead at the end of the first quarter. Ahly Benghazi had the better of the second quarter, and led 47-41 at half-time. The Tigers started stronger in the third, and held the lead briefly, but Ahly Benghazi rallied to lead 72-58 heading into the final quarter.

Tigers' hopes of a comeback were quelled by the Libyan champions, who won 87-76 despite appearing to be missing a gear in the injury-enforced absence of experienced point guard Pierre Jackson. Robert Golden, Jackson's replacement, posted 21 points, eight assists and four rebounds. Dhieu Deing led the Tigers' scoring with 21 points, while his South Sudanese compatriot Majok Deng posted 18 for Ahly Benghazi. Samkelo Cele showed flashes of brilliance for the Tigers with 16 points.

"The first game is out the way and I think in the second game, we will be more together," Cele said in the mixed zone. "I think we were good, we were good, we were good, and then we lost it a little bit and got back into it but it was too a little too late. I think Sunday, we will be fine. We will be more together. We will be gelling together."

The Tigers made several changes to their roster ahead of the playoffs, with Brian Bridgeforth, Abdoulaye Ndoye and Deing replacing Storm Gilchrist, Billy Preston Jr. and Lebesa Selepe.

The Tigers next face the top seed looking to avoid their third successive quarterfinals exit, but this year's tournament has thrown up several surprises already -- notably Uganda's City Oilers beating Egypt's Al Ahly in Cairo.

FUS Rabat led 22-19 at the end of the first quarter in the late game, but Ahly had the better of the second quarter and led 49-41 at half-time. The third quarter was uneventful, as Rabat chipped away only slightly at the margin, and Ahly led 64-58 heading into the final quarter.

Rabat flew out of the blocks in the fourth quarter, levelling at 64-64 before a bucket from Diarra put them ahead. Diarra saved his best basketball for the late stages of the game, with the BK Arena now all but full after being mostly empty for the early tip-off, and the Malian big man had fans jumping out of their seats with his spectacular dunking -- feeding off John Jordan's creative influence.

The cheers Diarra received from the crowd were rivalled by few -- with one contender being Rwandan president Paul Kagame, in attendance despite the absence of a home team in the playoffs for the first time ever.

The first two quarterfinals will be direct repeats of conference matchups. FUS beat the Tigers twice in Pretoria, while Egypt's Al Ahly beat Libya's Ahly Benghazi twice in Cairo.

Saturday's seeding games will see Angola's Petro de Luanda face Tunisia's US Monastir, and Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers play Senegal's AS Douanes in a repeat of a clash from Dakar's Sahara Conference.

These fixtures, like Friday's, will not be knockout games. Rather, they will decide who plays who in the two undecided quarterfinals on Monday.