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India retains SABA supremacy, despite Sri Lanka scare
The Indian U16 boys basketball team beat hosts Sri Lanka 66-52 in a pulsating South Asian finals. Both countries have qualified to the FIBA U16 Asian Championship later this month.
Colombo, September 1, 2023: An inspired Sri Lanka pushed India to the limit in the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) Qualifiers that culminated last evening in Colombo.
Buoyed by their home fans - who had turned up at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium in droves despite the pouring rain - the Islanders played out of their skin to threaten a South Asian upset for the ages.
Belying the muted expectations following a 54-113 group stage rout at the hands of the same opponents just a day earlier, the Lankans played with poise and purpose on both ends of the floor.
The initial possession suggested a repeat of India’s dominance - with multiple offensive rebounds for the visitors - no doubt exploiting the absence of Sri Lanka’s starting centre Vishwa Herath. Herath, the top performer in the group stages, would come off the bench in the finals, having sustained a knee injury in the previous game.
Sri Lanka’s 16-0 first-quarter run
But just as India built a 10-0 lead within the first five minutes, Sri Lanka came storming back, with an incredible 16-0 run of its own. Making up for Herath’s sizable absence in the paint, Sri Lankan forward Sudam Liyanage blocked and rebounded with boundless energy. This was just the defensive spark that the host needed, as on the other end, led by Captain Anthony ‘Darren’ Bernard it effortlessly knocked down floaters and threes.
At the end of the first quarter, Sri Lanka led 16-14, and until half-time, it appeared that the underdog hosts could do no wrong. Sri Lanka maintained its two-point lead going into the final two frames, and India was left ruing its many turnovers and missed shots.
India forced to play in the half-court
India’s entire strategy at the South Asian level involves overwhelming its undersized opponents with its athleticism and defensive intensity. In the first 20 minutes though, Sri Lanka did a near-perfect job of denying India any easy fast break points, forcing the defending champions to score against a set half-court defense.
Forced out of its comfort zone, India’s nerves were clearly visible with its many unforced turnovers - that included fumbling the ball off their own legs or prematurely lifting the pivot foot before the live dribble - both of which are clear signs of feeling the pressure.
India’s decisive 19-10 third quarter
The third quarter finally saw India get into a modicum of rhythm, composing itself just enough to prevail 19-10 in the period. Guard Mohit Jogchand hit some much-needed threes to make up for the lack of ball movement within his team.
India built up a crucial 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter before Darren knocked down another three-pointer of his own to make it a four-point game, 53-57 with five minutes remaining. But India held on for a face-saving 62-55 win.
By virtue of India having finished fifth at the last edition of the Asian U16 Championship, an additional qualification berth has been granted to SABA sub-zone. What this means is that both India and Sri Lanka will now progress to the continental event to be held in Qatar from September 17 to 24.
As things stand, with only two weeks to go for the Asian Championship, India faces an uphill task if it wishes to repeat its top-five standing from just a year ago.
India (Harjeet Singh 15 pts 13 reb, Mohit Jogchand 11 pts, Lokesh Kumar Sharma 10 pts) bt Sri Lanka (Anthony ‘Darren’ Bernard 25 pts, Vishwa Herath 10 pts 12 reb, Sudam Liyanage 18 reb) 62-55 [14-16, 20-20, 19-10, 9-9]