What you need to know:
- US Monastir are yet to lose a game in the BAL and the Tunisian side are being tipped as the hot favourites for the title.
- They face hosts Rwanda’s Patriots in the semis. US Monastir have already beaten Patriots in the group stages of this tournament
Rwandan champions Patriots Basketball Club and US Monastir are through to the Basketball Africa League (BAL) semi-finals and will face-off for a place in the final on Saturday.
In a nail-biting search for the semifinals berth, Patriots overcame a spirited Ferroviario du Maputo of Mozambique 73-71 at the Kigali Arena on Thursday.
It was a thrilling quarterfinals encounter that kept thousands of fans inside the Kigali Arena and those who were watching from home on the edge of their seats.
Patriots started strong, with Rwandan shooting guard Keneth Gasana hitting bucket after bucket, and at the end of the first quarter, the Rwandan-American had inspired the team to a comfortable 8-point lead.
Gasana, 36, recorded a game-high 23 points on 7-for-13 shooting, including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc.
Gasana also had five rebounds and one assist in 38 minutes and 8 seconds spent on the court.
Until the break, the Rwandans looked like they were going to roll over over their opponents - working as a team and being consistent with moving the ball to the paint.
But Ferroviario were not done yet. And so they staged a comeback.
By the end of the third quarter, the Patriots were trailing the Ferroviario by three points.
At one moment, Patriots BBC looked like they were on the brink of elimination. But Patriots BBC coach Alan Major introduced his captain, Aristide Mugabe, from the bench and everything changed.
Mugabe, a point guard, was prolific in his scoring where it mattered most for the home side, posting 18 points on a 6-for-9 performance from beyond the arc.
Mugabe, 33, who played 18 minutes and 29 seconds also recorded four rebounds, two assists and one steal to carry his team to the semifinals.
“We put our heart out for the game against Maputo. It was a total team effort,” said Major after the game.
The Patriots’ 73-71 victory wasn’t decided until the last two seconds of the game when Gasana made one of his two free-throws, sending the already enthusiastic home crowd into a frenzy. The excited fans included Rwanda President Paul Kagame, who attended the game alongside the visiting French President Emmanuel Macron.
Mugabe said: “We knew they (Ferroviario) were going to be tough because we played against them in Division East BAL qualifiers and they gave us hard time. But you can not take it way from the boys (Patriots teammates) for the hard work they put in to win this game.”
On whether the presence of President Kagame and President Macron in the stands put them under pressure, Mugabe said: “It’s an honour for us to play in front our president, and, of course, he had a guest (President Macron). We had to make sure we make him proud.”
“There was no way we would disappoint him. It’s like your father brought the guest, telling him, ‘My kid is doing well’ and you disappoint him. We are happy that we made him proud.”
Mugabe reserved special praises for the home fans admitting that they brought the energy in the stands.
"The energy [in the arena] was high. We can’t thank them enough. They gave us the extra energy when we needed them the most, especially in the last four to five minutes of the game. They kept us on our toes. We are happy that we gave them the joy that they needed.”
With Ferroviario de Maputo’s prolific scorer Alvaro Masa - who averaged a team-high 22.3 points per game in their first three games - struggling to get baskets, it seemed as if the Patriots defence had done the job right.
But Ferroviario de Maputo came up with a plan and reserve Hugo Martins came up strong. He sank a three-pointer that pulled his team within one point (54-53) with 2:10 minutes left in the third quarter.
Muchate followed soon after with another three-pointer that gave his team a 57-54 lead – their first of the second half.
Masa finished the game with 12 points and nine rebounds but spent considerable time on the bench after picking up his third technical early in the third quarter.
Ferroviario’s captain Milagre Macome blamed the team’s loss on lack of enough time for preparations and not having a competitive league back home.
"It's very important to take lessons from these games. We have to focus in having a professional league in Mozambique to give players more experience and pursue a full time career as basketball professionals, then we can fairly compete at a professional level like this,” Macome said.
Masai Ujiri, the President of Toronto Raptors the 2019 NBA champion, new NBA Africa entity investors Tunde Folawiyo, Chairman and CEO of Yinka Folawiyo Group, former Washington Wizards star Ian Mahinmi, and Chicago Bulls star Joakim Noah were also in attendance.
In an earlier quarterfinal encounter on Thursday, Tunisia’s US Monastir pounded AS Douanes of Senegal 86-62 to advance to the semifinals.
US Monastir are yet to lose a game in the BAL and the Tunisian side are being tipped as the hot favourites for the title.
They face hosts Rwanda’s Patriots in the semis. US Monastir have already beaten Patriots in the group stages of this tournament.