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China win U18 FIBA Asia Championship in thrilling fashion; India finish 10th

Hoopistani
FEATURED COLUMNIST
1.59K   //    27 Aug 2012, 13:18 IST

Winners of nine previous U18 FIBA Asia Championships, and holding the most dominant stronghold over basketball in Asia in all the age and gender sub-divisions, China once again fielded the most fearsome-looking squad at the 22nd U18 FIBA Asia Championship in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The squad didn’t disappoint through the course of the championship (August 17-26, 2012), easily demolishing most of their competitors. The only close call in their perfect lead up to the final was an overtime victory over Korea.

In the final on August 26th, China once again faced a motivated Korea, who had smelt blood. Korea played a near-perfect game in the Final, and led by a comfortable margin of 10 points before the start of the final quarter. But China began to chip away at their lead, and with Korea up by 5 with less than 2 minutes to go in the final game, China’s stars Gao Shang and Wang Zhelin struck in the clutch to give the favourites a memorable comeback win. Korea made several costly mistakes and turnovers in the dying minutes, and China took full advantage.

Shang had 28 points in the final, none more important than the two he scored with a layup with only 4 seconds left on the clock to give his country the 93-91 victory. Seconds earlier, the tournament’s leading scorer Zhelin (22.3 ppg) had hit a clutch three to tie the game for China. Zhelin finished with 30 points and 13 rebounds in the final. Dai Huaibo added 18 for the Chinese.

This was China’s 10th Gold Medal at the U18 FIBA ABC. Korea, who dominated most of the game, had to settle for Silver. They were led in the Final by Jonghyun Lee (24) and Junyong Choi (21).

The Bronze Medal game was played earlier on Sunday between Iran and Japan, and also went down to the wire. Sajjad Mashayekhi had a masterful triple double (26 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds) to help lead Iran to a 87-83 win. Benham Yakhchalidehkordi (24) and Saleh Foroutan Nik (21 points, 11 rebounds) also made big contributions for Iran. Japan were led by Masahiro Narita (25), former NBA player Yuta Watanabe (23), and Yudai Baba (16).

Earlier, in the Semi-Final stage, China had beaten Japan 103-80 and Korea had won a close game over Iran, 96-93.

Meanwhile, after failing to finish above 13th place in the last three editions of the U18 FIBA ABC, the Indian team came into the tournament a confident, slightly improved roster. Still rehabbing a knee injury, India’s superstar Center Satnam Singh Bhamara was forced to miss this tournament, but his absence made room for a new star to bloom in his position, the 6 foot 8 Palpreet Singh Brar. Led by Brar, the Indians won just two of their eight games, but their performance was good enough to warrant them a 10th place finish (out of 16) at the tournament, their best finish since 2004.

India’s Head Coach Jai Prakash ‘JP’ Singh rotated the starting five between the likes of Amit Kanarjee, Love Neet Singh, Rakesh Sangwan, Palpreet Singh Brar, Narendar Grewal, Karthickeyen Saminathan, and Shyam Sunder. Experienced star Ajay Pratap Singh only played the first game of the tournament, due to an injury earlier on. His loss could’ve also cost India some valuable rungs up the ladder.

SportsKeeda writer Siddarth Sharma did an excellent job in compiling all of the statistics of the Indian players at this tournament here.

In the preliminary round of the tournament, India were placed in a group with heavyweights China and with Lebanon and Hong Kong. India’s first game against Lebanon – the squad closest to our talent level – was to prove the most important. Lebanon are ranked slightly higher than India, but a win against them would’ve been a huge surge forward in India’s ranking. India started off on the right foot and even held on to a four point halftime lead, looking comfortable against a tougher opposition. But a big third-quarter surge gave Lebanon the advantage again, and after a nervy final period, Lebabon survived to win the game 65-61. With 28 points to lead India, Brar, who was nowhere on the national-level radar a few years ago, showed that he was going to be a force to be reckoned with in the tournament.

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Brar’s recent improvement can be credited to the hard work he has done over the last few years, for which he was awarded earlier this year by being picked to represent India at the Basketball Without Borders – Asia camp in Japan. His new-found confidence was evident throughout the course of this tournament, which he finished averaging 21.5 ppg (third-best in the championship) and 8.6 rpg.

India faced the mighty China in their second game with low expectations. The result was hardly surprising. China started 27-4 in the first quarter and led throughout to a 119-54 beatdown of India. The only bright spark in India’s performance was power forward Rakesh Sangwan, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds. Sangwan averaged a double-double through the tournament: With 12.4 ppg, Sangwan finished the tournament as India’s second-leading scorer; and with 10.1 rpg, he was India’s leading rebounder and the fifth-best rebounder in the entire tournament.

India’s last group game was against Hong Kong, and the Indians played a well all-round game to outwork their opponents and win 77-68. This game was highlighted by a fantastic 27 point-17 rebound outing by Brar and 16 points by point guard Amit Kanarjee.

India finished third in their group after this win and saw their way into the Second Round, where they were slated to face eventual finalists Korea, powerhouse Japan, and Syria.

Like China earlier, India faced no chance versus Korea in their first Second Round matchup. Korea played blisteringly good offense to destroy India, 123-73. India did see a lone fight-back by Kanarjee, who had 25 points.

Japan also had no trouble beating the Indians, using a balanced effort to head towards a 100-71 win. But even they had no answer for India’s big Brar, who had 31 points and 14 rebounds to leave a mark on the game.

India’s final Second Round game was against Syria, a game where Indians could expect to be far more competitive. Like in their match versus Lebanon, India once again held a slim halftime advantage over Syria, but once again, the third quarter let them down. Syria came storming back to take a double digit lead, and despite Brar’s 19 points, win the game 69-57.

Knocked out of progression further up into the tournament, India had to play two final games to contend for 9-12 spots.

India won the first of these games against Indonesia 67-53, with Brar (24 points) once again the team leader. In the second game (and last of the tournament), India once again faced Syria: Syria started better this time around and had a 13-point lead at the end of the first half. India’s comeback attempt in the second half failed and Syria emerged 86-76 winners. Brar (27 points) and Kanarjee (16) led the way for India. With 10.6 ppg, Kanarjee finished as India’s third-leading scorer.

Since the final standing – 10th – was an improvement for India, the tournament could technically be considered a minor success. But what is more encouraging than the final rankings is the potential that India seems to have displayed. This U18 squad comprised mostly of the same players who Coach JP Singh had led to an impressive showing in the U16 FIBA Asia Championship in Vietnam last year. The core of Love Neet Singh, Narender, Kanarjee, Ajay Pratap Singh, Karhickeyen, and Rakesh Sangwan have played together a lot and will be major assets for India in the future as they continue to improve. The breakout of Palpreet Singh Brar will of course be the talking point of this championship, as the youngster has sent out a challenge to India’s other young big men – Amjyot Singh, Amrit Pal Singh, Satnam Singh Bhamara – to set up a healthy competition for the future.

The absence of Satnam of course hurt us: he was the leading scorer in the U16 tournament and is a beast in the defensive end too. The two losses to Syria and the one to Lebanon could’ve easily turned in our favour if he had been present; but then again, his presence would’ve limited Brar’s breakout performance.

It was India’s three losses mentioned above – to Lebanon, Syria, and Syria again – which are the most frustrating. It’s no good just beating the teams ranked below us, like Hong Kong and Indosesia. And we can’t yet be expected to realistically challenge the likes of China, Korea, or Japan. Lebanon and Syria are two countries who are close to our ranking, but slightly better, and if we have to improve, we have to learn how to finish games off better, smooth out all the rough edges, and get an advantage over these countries.

How to make those little improvements? Coach JP Singh believes that it is all about exposure. In an interview to FIBA, he said:

“I do believe that lack of enough exposure trips and games is a major hindrance in the progress of Indian basketball. There are only a certain things that can be taught in training camps and without a game, there is hardly any course correction. A player who does extremely well in practice comes a cropper when faced with a similar situation.”

“You cannot repeat or simulate game situations in practice.”

“The need of the hour is to sustain this progress. It’s true we have fallen behind against some teams in the last decade or so. But we have shown in two consecutive FIBA Asia events that India has the potential to regain the space that rightfully belongs to them.”

The structure behind hoops in India is still a work in progress, and improvement will be a slow and steady process. But as Coach Singh said, for two tournaments now India has shown how close they are to making the jump up the next level. With a few readjustments, that jump can come sooner rather than later.

U18 FIBA Asia Championship – Final Standings

1. China
2. Korea
3. Iran
4. Japan
5. Chinese Taipei

Tournament All Star Team

  • Luo Hanchen (China)
  • Junyong Choi (Korea)
  • Vahid Dalirzahan (Iran)
  • Wang Zhelin (China)
  • Jonghyun Lee (Korea)
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