Going into the second phase of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) Qualifiers in Kigali, Rwanda last December, City Oilers were one of the favourites to advance and play at the inaugural professional basketball league on the continent in 2020.
However, it took four games for the Oilers’ story to change. In an 80-minute blur, they plummeted from favourites to fighting for their lives in a 3rd place playoff, a cruel fate for a team widely considered to be one of the best at the eight-team tournament.
The onslaught began with their first game (on the court) when the Oilers got off to a slow start in the group game against Ferroviario de Maputo, destroying their hopes of topping the pool and leaving them in line to face hosts Patriots at the semifinals.
Now the Oilers, a team that was expected to make the 12-team professional league competing with the best on the continent, are back in Kampala with winning the local league their only option at having another chance to play at the BAL Qualifiers.
Falling is never easy. It happens to most of the teams that are lucky enough to make it to the top. It’s one of the things that make sports interesting. But the speed at which Oilers changed course was goddamn stunning, and it was inevitable for me to look beyond the results.
At the final horn of the 74-57 defeat to Ferroviaro in the 3rd place playoff, two questions ran through my mind; have Oilers been unlucky (with injuries) or were they simply not good enough for the tournament?
The natural way to go about the team’s performance at the tournament is by starting with the preparation leading to the event to find out if Oilers were on shaky ground.
Obviously, City Oilers were never going to win the tournament, even with Jordin Mayes fit because it had Patriots written all over, but they were not supposed to be that bad if the head coach’s words prior to the tournament are anything to go by. So, what happened?
The first qualifying tournament in October in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania left City Oilers bruised as veteran forward Stephen Omony and Nigerian center Francis Azolibe got injured before the final game against Patriots.
Oilers played the final with just two big men in Landry Ndikumana and James Okello in their seven-player rotation. Patriots dominance of that game highlighted the bleeding obvious; City Oilers needed to reinforce heading into the final qualifying round.
“Of course we are going to make additions. We just felt the team we had was just good enough to get us through the first round, and they did,” City Oilers coach Mandy Juruni told Kawowo Sports then.
The priority big man for Oilers was REG’s power forward Ellie Kaje. While an agreement had reportedly been reached between the clubs and FERWABA to have the Rwandan international join Oilers camp, the deal fell through at the last minute with Patriots taking on the athletic big man.
With little time to make fixes, City Oilers settled for JKL Dolphins center Ivan Lumanyika who had returned from injury a couple of weeks to the end of the regular season. “He has been training hard, he wants to do better and he is fine and focused,” Juruni said of Lumanyika ahead of the tournament.
Lumanyika’s biggest contribution at the tournament was scoring 12 points and picking 5 rebounds in the group opener against Ferroviario de Maputo. For player added to the team mainly to contribute defensively, Lumanyika was so poor as he more often than not lost his man in the defensive set up Oilers employed regularly in the two games against Ferroviaro.
Elliot and Petty unable to adjust
Devonte Elliot was added to solve the big man deficiency in the team but he turned out to be just a bit player and his presence on the roster was a subtle reminder of Leon Tillman at the 2017 Champions Cup.
For those of us who have followed the African game for a while and had a chance to watch Elliot play before the tournament in the exhibition game against UCU Canons at Gems Cambridge in Butabika, we were certain he would be bullied on every possession. The 6’9″ forward found it tough to play against Titus Lual and Peter Sifuma, and it was never in doubt that he would definitely struggle against more physical and aggressive players at the tournament.
“When it comes to being physical and aggressive, nobody beats Americans,” Juruni told Kawowo Sports after the scrimmage at Gems.
Ferroviario’s Custodio Muchate and Helton Ubisse bullied Elliot back to the bench every time he stepped on the floor and Juruni had to go to James Okello who was aggressive as the Mozambican big men. Elliot eventually fouled out with 5 points and 4 rebounds.
Tyray Petty was not any better in that game. The two-guard who switched positions with Robinson Opong was poor on both ends of the floor as he shot 2-of-10 from the floor (0-of-5 from beyond the arc) and was -17 at the other end.
Juruni came to their defense in the aftermath of the game saying: “I think it took them (Elliot and Tyray Petty) long to adjust being their first game but they did pretty well in the second half.”
Mayes injury exposes Oilers offense
Over the past four or so years, City Oilers offensive burden beyond the borders had been spread between Jordin Mayes, Robinson Opong, Stanley Ocitti, and Jimmy Enabu.
With Ocitti out and Enabu unfit having played sporadically through the season due to education commitments, the offensive burden rested on Mayes and Opong, and probably the two new additions, Petty and Elliot.
Opong’s shooting had dipped since the AfroCan Qualifiers that were host in Kampala in June and his production would certainly not be a given at the BAL Qualifiers.
And Oilers’ first game at the tournament was a testament. Mayes scored an efficient 27 points and Opong had 17 points. Opong’s shooting lull continued as he went 4-of-12 from the field. Lumanyika added 12 points but no other Oiler reached double figures and it was clear Oilers were thin on offensive options.
Oilers offensive frailty became more apparent in the semifinal game against Patriots. The Ugandan champions, trailing 36-31, lost Mayes to injury with just under two minutes to play. The effect of Mayes’ exit from the game at the offensive end was devastating as the team scored 28 points the rest of the way. At his exit, Mayes had 9 points and only one player, Petty (who had 5 points at the time), matched that tally at the end of the game.
For the all-important 3rd-place playoff game whose winner had to join GNBC and Patriots, City Oilers had just nine players fit and Juruni rotated 8 with Jimmy Enabu, James Okello and Landry Ndikumana logging the most minutes. The trio has been Oilers best locally but they combined for 20 points shooting an abysmal 7-of-29 from the field.