JOHANNESBURG -- The Cape Town Tigers qualified for the Basketball Africa League on Saturday with a 67-63 win over Madagascan club COSPN in Johannesburg, with former first round NBA pick Terrance Ferguson ensuring that the once-fractured group found unity.
The Tigers have made back-to-back BAL quarter-finals, with high-profile signings who have come and gone, including former NBA players such as Ben Uzoh, Jamel Artis, Cleanthony Early and Mike Gbinije, as well as other recognisable names such as Zaire Wade, Myck Kabongo, Billy Preston Jr. and Evans Ganapamo.
However, it has been openly acknowledged by several Tigers players over the years that they have often struggled to play as a team.
Ferguson, who was the MVP at the 2016 Nike Hoop Summit and was drafted 21st overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2017, told ESPN that his main priority after signing for the Tigers a month ago was to help unify the group.
"Just playing together," he said when asked which career lessons he tried to transmit to his teammates. "Not playing selfish basketball. We win together as a team and mainly doing it over at the defensive end.
As you can see, we were super disciplined at the defensive end all night long. Obviously, both teams made runs, but we got stops when we most needed it - when it was most important - and we got the win."
Ferguson, who has also played for the Philadelphia 76ers and in Australia and Poland, had a role to play at both ends, happy to work outside of the spotlight for the team instead of trying to be the main player. He finished the game with 8 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals.
However, to claim that he was the sole decisive factor for the Tigers would be a disservice to the standout performance from Nathi Sibanyoni, who finished with 14 points and 21 rebounds.
Perhaps the best sign of a strong group of foreign recruits - including Ferguson, Terry Larrier and Cartier Diarra - is that they have allowed local players including Sibanyoni and Samkelo Cele to play to the best of their abilities rather than gatekeeping the limelight.
Tigers coach Florsheim Ngwenya had alluded to this before the decisive Elite 16 round of qualifiers began in Johannesburg, telling guests at the team's kit launch: "For the first time in a long time, this team is binding.
"This group of players that you see here are probably the best group of players that this organization has ever put together in terms of the skill level, but also just the human touch of things, which is also very important.
"These guys are very great. They just gelled within a month or so as brothers... I'd like to commend Rah (CEO Raphael Edwards) and his management team for bringing in [foreign recruits] for the first time that are for the organization."
The job is far from done for the Tigers, however, as they now have to prove that they can maintain stability for a full season. Last season, the team peaked during qualifiers with a strong team featuring Dhieu Deing and Raphiael Putney.
When the BAL came around, they hired a hugely respected coach in Rasheed Hazzard, who had been an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks. However, Deing and Putney were axed from the roster at the eleventh hour.
This added to the pressure on the Tigers and Zaire Wade, who they brought in for the tournament and who shouldered much of the fan expectation at only 21 years old.
With Hazzard, Wade, Ganapamo and Gbinije all out this time, the Tigers rebuild is far from complete, but they found enough manpower to ensure that they qualified to host the BAL Kalahari Conference when the tournament tips off in South Africa for the first time in March 2024.
After sealing their qualification for the BAL on Saturday, the Tigers wrapped up the East Division qualifying title with a 70-68 win over Uganda's City Oilers in the final, as Ferguson starred with 17 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists. Burundi's Dynamo claimed the final BAL spot with a 79-78 third-place playoff win over COSPN.
The Tigers, Oilers and Dynamo will be joined at the BAL by defending champions Al Ahly (Egypt), Petro de Luanda (Angola), APR (Rwanda), AS Douanes (Senegal), US Monastir (Tunisia), Bangui (Central African Republic), FUS Rabat (Morocco), Al Ahly Benghazi (Libya) and Rivers Hoopers (Nigeria).