Ten years ago, Nigeria caused one of the biggest upsets in the basketball world when it took down world powerhouse Serbia in an 82-75 win at the 2006 World Championships in Japan. Ebi Ere was instrumental in that game scoring 15 points against the then title holders, and along with Josh Akogon, Ekene Ibekwe and Chamberlain Oguchi who are the only remaining members of that squad in this current team, the four athletes looked to recreate those moments in Sendai against another Eastern European powerhouse Croatia in a bid to earn their first win at the ongoing 2016 Olympic tournament in Brazil thus keeping their hopes alive for a quarter final berth.
Starting Five: Michael Umeh – Chamberlain Oguchi – Ebi Ere – Ike Diogu – Alade Aminu.
Will Voigt kept the same starting five that prosecuted the last two games. Nigeria controlled the tip however it was Croatia that put the first points on the board on their second possession, Ebi Ere responded straightaway with a three-pointer from the corner to give Nigeria its first lead as both teams traded baskets in an early bid to control the game.
Led by their NBA star Bojan Bogdanovic, Croatia were dangerous on the offensive end exploiting several mismatches especially in the guard and forward positions. Former UNLV standout Michael Umeh ensured that Nigeria stayed within touching distance by hitting three three-pointers in the quarter to keep Nigeria in contention. Croatia took a 7 point lead into the second quarter.
The second unit for the Nigerian team were instrumental in a strong quarter for Nigeria. Michael Gbinije and Josh Akognon were benefiting from good decision making, and it was the former Syracuse standout Gbinije that restored Nigeria’s lead with a three-pointer from the wing to cap off an 8-0 run by Nigeria.
Both teams once again traded baskets with four minutes left in the half until Josh Akognon converted on two made free throws to spark another 8-0 run giving Nigeria a six point lead with just over two minutes left to half time. Bogdanovic made two free throws to keep Croatia in contention however, an 11-2 run late in the third quarter gave Nigeria its biggest lead at 70-53 as Nigeria looked to take full control of the game.
The final quarter saw Croatia quickly aim to wipe out the 17 point deficit. They forced Nigeria into several errors and brought the game to within three points after some three-point plays with just over four minutes left in the game. Nigeria refused to back down and when Josh Akognon made a three-pointer reminiscent of the World Championships 2006, the Nigeria team grew again in confidence as former Oklahoma State standout Ebi Ere hit three threes in the final three minutes to seal Nigeria’s win.
Michael Umeh led the Nigerian team in scoring with 19 points, he also had 5 rebounds and 4 assists. Josh Akognon finished with 18 points and 5 assists, Ebi Ere had 14 points and 6 assists as Nigeria had a total of 26 assists in the game and shot 47% from behind the arc. Ike Diogu finished with a double double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Bojan Bogdanovic led the Croatian team with 28 points.
Nigeria will now play a must win game against home team Brazil in their final Group B clash and hope that other results in the group go their way if they are to earn a quarter final spot.