Egyptian club Ahly ended up in fourth place in the Intercontinental Cup in Singapore sponsored by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA).
Brazilian club Sesi Franca emerged victorious from one of the most dramatic battles in the competition’s history, 70-69 over Germany’s Telekom Baskets Bonn, to celebrate their first ever Intercontinental title in the state-of-the-art Singapore Indoor Stadium on Sunday.
In the play-off for third place, Ahly lost to Zhejiang Golden Bulls of China 81-74. It was a long two hour and 13 minute match, but the Golden Bulls made history by becoming the first Chinese team in FIBA Intercontinental Cup history to reach the podium.
This was the second time that a team from Egypt finished fourth in the history of the competition as Ahly arch-rivals, Zamalek, took fourth place in the 2022 edition.
Zhejiang Golden Bulls took control of the game in the second half after trailing by as many as 11 points in the first. Ahly did everything they could to erase the 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter and made it back to 72-67 with just two minutes left to play.
That’s when Jarmar Gulley knocked down a big three-pointer and followed up with a steal and an assist to Zilu Wang to make it +7 in the final minute. There was no comeback, despite the big effort by Ahly.
Reginald Perry was the big body inside for the Golden Bulls, using all of his size and strength to collect a 23-point, 12-rebound double-double, with four assists on the side.
“We were really just focused on trying to get the defensive stops. I feel like we did really well in the second half doing that. It was really tough, really physical and the refs let us play. Ahly has a few good bigs, so it was tough. It was a great experience,” Perry, one of the team’s superstars, said after the game.
Ahly can only blame themselves for losing this game because of their poor shooting as they seemed tired playing for three consecutive days. Still, they leave Singapore as the first African team to ever record a win at the FIBA Intercontinental Cup.
“We did our best, except for some silly mistakes in the shooting at the end of the match and will look to be back here next year. We will do our best to have another successful Basketball Africa League (BAL) campaign in Africa,” said Agustin Julbe, Ahly’s coach.
Ahly had fallen in Group A, beating NBA G League Ignite on 21 September 82-76 before springing back to action the following day against Basketball Champions League Americas winners Sesi Franca Basquete whom they lost to 90-70.
The winner of that three-team group moved to the final. The second-placed team fought for the third step of the podium against the Group B runner-up while the third-placed team battled for fifth spot in the tournament against the third-placed team in Group B.
The BAL was represented in Singapore by Ahly who have decades of experience and have accumulated trophies in competitions across Africa.
BAL is a professional league established by the NBA and FIBA in order to raise the level of club competition in Africa. With each passing season the level of competition has been increasing, and the path to glory that Ahly had to negotiate in 2023 was arguably tougher than that of any previous champion.
The first step was hiring coach Julbe, the 2021 BAL winner with Zamalek. Julbe steered Ahly to a 4-1 record in the Nile Conference, finishing second in that part of the bracket behind only the unbeaten Petro de Luanda from Angola.
As the second seed in their conference, Ahly faced in the quarter-finals the third-placed team in the Sahara Conference, Rwanda’s REG, and prevailed 94-77 to set up a date with the top-ranked Sahara Conference team, Mali’s Stade Malien, in the semi-finals.
That one finished 78-73, allowing Ahly to go to the championship game and defeat AS Douanes from Senegal 80-65 in the final. Nuni Omot was named the MVP en route to Ahly’s conquest of their maiden BAL title.
The play-calling from the bench will be interesting to follow, as Julbe built a reputation as one of the best assistant coaches during his time in Europe, at the bench of Joventut Badalona, Barcelona, Baskonia, Anadolu Efes and Gran Canaria.
The Spanish coach has got a superstar to draw plays for now. Two-time NBA champion Norris Cole is the squad’s biggest arrival over the summer. The former Miami Heat guard is now getting his first taste of African basketball, after stints in North America, Asia and Europe.
Domestic firepower was also on hand for Ahly. The FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 star Ehab Amin controlled the backcourt, fresh off of leading Egypt to two wins in Manila, double the number they had celebrated over the last 60 years of World Cup games.
Amin had his World Cup teammates Amr Al-Gendi, Amr Zahran and Omar Orabi to help him around, and since Amin averaged 19.4 points, 5.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds in the World Cup then there was plenty of reason to stay tuned for 40 minutes.
Ahly’s basketball team was founded in 1930 but its habit of collecting medals began in the late 1980s. Since then, it has won the Egyptian League seven times, including back-to-back titles in 2022 and 2023. To make this the most successful era of the club, the team also won the Egyptian Cup in 2022 and 2023, making it consecutive double crowns for Ahly.
In 2021, Ahly also won the Arab Club Basketball Championship for the first time in their history, and they had more international success with two African Basketball Cup Winners’ Cup titles in 1998 and 2000, one FIBA Africa Club Champions Cup trophy in 2016 and the newly added prestigious Basketball Africa League title in 2023.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly