Even though their FIBA Basketball World Cup dreams are over, China and Nigeria have plenty to play for in a blockbuster game on Sunday.
The teams will play their final game of the tournament in Classification 17-32 Group M action with the carrot of Olympic qualification dangling in front of them. With two victories each, China and Nigeria are in pole position for direct Olympics entry in their respective regions of Asia and Africa.
In front of a sellout crowd at the Guangzhou Gymnasium, China edged out Korea in a 77-73 thriller to ensure some breathing space from Iran who beat Angola. It’s been a tough tournament for the hosts whose hopes of a fairy tale campaign ended with heartbreaking losses to Poland and Venezuela.
But it’s an opportunity to end on a high in front of their army of passionate fans, who helped inspire them to victory against Korea. It sets up a massive clash against Nigeria, where the atmosphere will be electric.
China, however, are not getting caught up in the hype. “The tournament isn’t over yet. We can’t predict the future,” guard Rui Zhao said. “Nothing is for certain. All we can do is prepare and do our best.”
China coach Li Nan hoped the stirring victory over Korea would provide momentum heading into the clash against Nigeria. “It was tough coming off the two losses, which affected our team,” he said.
“We will prepare for Nigeria the same way we will prepare for our other games.”
Despite their confidence, China are set for a major challenge against Nigeria whose athleticism overwhelmed Cote d’Ivoire in a comfortable victory.
It gives Nigeria the edge currently over Tunisia in the battle for an Olympic berth.
Al-Farouq Aminu, who plays for the Portland Trailblazers in the NBA, believed Nigeria had the mental strength to overcome the hostile atmosphere that will greet them on Sunday night.
“There has been pressure since the first game of the tournament,” he said. “We are always playing to win and we want to represent our country in the best way.
“We didn’t get the job done in getting a medal but we have a new goal and want to qualify for the Olympics.”