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Surprise of World Cup, Nigeria not afraid of US

September 26, 2018

SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, Spain (AP) — Nigeria continues to be the surprise of the women’s basketball worlds, becoming the first African country to advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

Coach Otis Hughley Jr. called it a series of miracles that his team has made it this far after the 57-56 win over Greece on Wednesday. Nigeria might need to pull off the biggest stunner of all to reach the medal rounds when it faces the U.S. in the quarterfinals Friday.

“We’re going to have to be really, really prepared to put ourselves in position to be competitive with the best in the world,” Hughley said. “There’s no question that would be a miracle. We could be the eighth wonder of the world.”

People are already starting to take notice back home of Nigeria’s success. After the team won its second game, beating Argentina and clinching the second seed in the pool, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari tweeted his congratulations . One of many Nigerians to offer their praise to the team.

“Oh man, you have no idea! I’ve probably gotten like 1,000 new followers on Instagram between two days ago and now,” Nigeria guard Sarah Ogoke said. “Everybody’s watching.”

Hughley didn’t want to begin to speculate the positive impact his team has had on the country.

“You can’t quantify it. I’m sure they will be able to in the years to come,” said Hughley, who grew up in New York. “I’m sure there are little girls with picture of these girls in their rooms, yelling at the TV, bragging in school. I just can’t understand what this might mean to Nigeria right now.”

Nigeria, which was winless in its only other appearance in the Worlds in 2006, qualified for this year’s tournament by winning the African continental championship for the first time in 12 years. Nigeria arrived at the World Cup with the second-worst FIBA ranking of any team participating — only besting Belgium. Yet with a roster built with former American college players, it has shocked the field.

While it may seem that a win over the U.S. is nearly impossible, the Nigerian players aren’t intimidated by their next opponent, which has won 19 straight World Cup games and features 12 WNBA stars. Many of the Nigerian team members played college basketball with and against some of the American players.

“Honestly, that’s been my dream, to play against them, since I made the national team,” Ogoke said. “Everybody on the team has played against them. Whether it was in college or overseas or in high school or whatever, like half those girls I know personally. I grew up with them, we worked out together, just from high school. It’s just another game to me, honestly, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Ogoke, who grew up in Houston then joked how they are the same.

“They have two eyes just like we have two eyes,” she said. “They don’t have six heads.”

The game has special meaning to U.S. player Nneka Ogwumike, who is of Nigerian descent.

“It’s a bittersweet situation,” Ogwumike said. “These are the two countries that have been so big a part of my upbringing and now they are here (playing each other).”

Ogwumike has always had her parents’ homeland on her mind.

Four years ago, after a massive kidnapping of school girls in Nigeria drew international attention, she and her sister Chiney, launched a fundraising competition open to middle and high school basketball teams to raise money to support UNICEF programs focusing on girls’ education and empowerment . The eventual goal was to give one million girls in Nigeria access to quality schooling by providing scholarships for female teachers and establish safe places for girls to learn.

They are still on their way to that goal.

On Friday, Ogwumike hopes to enjoy the moment between her two countries.

“It’s amazing, we’ve seen a lot of skillful development in these African countries and I love it,” she said.

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