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07/07/2012

CARCAS (FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament) - International basketball is at long last seeing the best of Nigeria.

The country that gave the world Hakeem Olajuwon and also reached the knockout stages of 2006 FIBA World Championship has trailed in the wake of African brothers Angola over the eyars but in Caracas, Venezuela, this week, at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT), the team coached by Ayo Bakare has put forth three stunning performances.

After impressing in a 71-69 defeat to hosts Venezuela, Nigeria bounced back to beat a couple of European superpowers in Lithuania (86-80) and Greece (80-79).

Heading into Saturday's Semi-Final showdown with Russia, Nigeria are a single victory away from a first-ever Olympic appearance.

Should Nigeria lose, they would play in Sunday's Final against the Dominican Republic or Lithuania.

In Venezuela, the Nigerians have played with passion, self-belief, determination and composure.

They possess one of the most athletic teams in the competition, and one that has played smart.

Two of the most athletics players in the team are the Aminu brothers, natives of Atlanta whose father is Nigerian.

Alade Aminu, 24, played American college basketball at Georgia Tech while Al-Farouq Aminu, 21, competed at Wake Forest in North Carolina.

Alade has been a professional in Europe, spending this past season with Elan Chalon in France where he won three trophies on the domestic front.

Al-Farouq plays in the NBA with the New Orleans Hornets.

In Nigerian, Al-Farouq means "The king has arrived" and really, that is exactly what has happened in Caracas.

When it comes to dazzling, above-the-rim plays, he lords it over everyone.

He has drawn many gasps and applause from the crowd.

On the opening night, Al-Farouq's Hornets' teammate Greivis Vasquez of Venezuela was understandably the main attraction but ever since, the sky-walking Al-Farouq has delivered one eye-opening play after another.

He loves playing for the country of his father.

"It's a great thing," he said to FIBA.com.

"My dad is Nigerian and a lot of my family are Nigerians so it really means a lot.

"Just to play FIBA and during the summer with these guys, and to play with my brother - it just means a lot to me."

Al-Farouq has averaged 13 points and 5.7 rebounds in his three games.

He got off to a shaky start against Venezuela, a game that Nigeria lost, 71-69.

But in an 86-80 victory over Lithuania and an 80-79 triumph over Greece, he hit a combined 11 of 22 shots from the floor, corralled 14 rebounds and blocked a shot.

The Nigerians have grown in this tournament, and that is especially true of Al-Farouq.

Against Venezuela, he tried to force his way into the game instead of allowing the game to come to him.

He made a couple of three-balls from three attempts but was four of 11 from the field overall and had three turnovers.

Defensively, Al-Farouq had two blocks but he wasn't happy with his performance.

"In the first game, I was just too excited," he said.

"It was my first time playing for the team on a big scale.

"I just wanted to do so well and my nerves got the best of me.

"FIBA basketball reminds me of college.

"Teams really pack it in and it makes it harder to get to the bucket when I slash and do things like that.

"But it's a good thing I have good teammates and they help me out."

"I felt like against Lithuania, I played like I always play."

In the six-point triumph over Lithuania, Al-Farouq was more patient on offense and finished with 16 points and nine boards.

Al-Farouq says Nigeria's players never doubted themselves after the loss to Venezuela.

"We knew it was our first time playing together," he said.

"We'd only been playing together for three weeks.

"I think it taught us a lot and helped us with this game.

"We go into every game thinking we're going to win it."

Whether it was on offense or defense, Nigeria never backed down against Lithuania, a team that has played in every Olympics since 1992.

"We felt like losing wasn't an option," Al-Farouq said.

"We just talked before the game about how much it meant to everybody and it showed."

Nigeria are now flying the flag for African Basketball.

"We're coming up," Al-Farouq said.

"We really want to make a mark.

"Hopefully we can get one of those spots for the Olympics."

While Nigeria can afford to lose to Russia on Saturday and still win Sunday's Final to reach the London Games, they did not have such a luxury against Lithuania or Greece.

A defeat in either of those games would have seen the national team fall out of contention for a spot in the Olympics.

"It was already do or die and we know we have to play with intensity and carry it over," Al-Farouq said.

No matter what happens the rest of the summer, the experience of Caracas will always be treasured by Al-Farouq.

He has the chance to play with his brother, Alade, who was sensational against Greece with nine points and seven rebounds.

"It's amazing," Al-Farouq said.

"We grew up together but I've not been on the same team with him professionally.

"It's the first time and for us to be on the same stage like this is wonderful."

His father has not flown to Caracas but Al-Farouq knows he is keeping tabs on his sons.

"He's back in New Orleans and is trying to catch the games on the computer," Al-Farouq said.

"He's excited."

FIBA
 

  
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