When the ‘unexpected’ reigned supreme

The jubilant Tamil Nadu men.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Chhattisgarh women and Tamil Nadu men made the recent basketball nationals all their own. Kamesh Srinivasan has the details.

It was a coup that had been brewing for the last few years. The Chhattisgarh girls pulled it off this time as they tamed champion Railways in a dramatic, but clinical fashion in the 64th edition of the National basketball championship.

With excellent playing facilities at the Thyagaraj Indoor Stadium in New Delhi literally offering a level playing field and funds from IMG Reliance ensuring quality accommodation and food for the teams, Chhattisgarh showed the world that it had come of age.

Unlike the Railways which had won the title 26 times in the last 28 editions, Chhattisgarh had made the final only once earlier. Yet, some of its players had the experience of winning the national title. With Railways offering employment to the best players, it was only natural for some of the Chhattisgarh players to be part of the Railways.

In fact, Chhattisgarh had four players — Seema Singh, Bharti Netam, Kavita Kumari and L. Deepa — who had been part of the Railways team. They could not find a place in the Railways squad this time, and were very determined to show their efficiency. And this worked to Chhattisgarh’s advantage.

Yet, Railways did have a player from Chhattisgarh, Anju Lakra, who sank seven three-pointers in the final and threatened to script another Railway triumph. Yet, as coach Rajesh Patel pointed out, Chhattisgarh cut the passes for two of Railways’ leading players, Geethu Anna Jose and Anju Lakra, particularly at the crunch, to script a memorable triumph.

“Geethu alone had scored 50 points in the last final against Tamil Nadu. She scored only 17 points this time,’’ pointed out Patel, quite proud of his team’s achievement.

More than the excellent play in the final when Chhattisgarh gradually got ahead of the Railways, after trailing 12-23, 38-45, 60-64 in the first three quarters before winning 81-77, it was the courage with which it handled the earlier qualification phase that stood out.

For, Chhattisgarh had lost two of its four league matches in the qualification stage to Maharashtra (56-60) and Punjab (52-64).

“Against Maharashtra, Seema Singh had twisted her ankle and Poonam Chaturvedi was not at her best,’’ said coach Patel.

Chhattisgarh had recovered after the defeat against Maharashtra, which had scored only 20 points against the runner-up of the last edition, Tamil Nadu, in its opening match, and was capable of finishing second in the group. However, such a finish would have fetched Chhattisgarh a semifinal clash against the Railways.

“Our players wanted to play the Railways only in the final. It meant a huge risk of playing Kerala, which was easily the second or third best team in the tournament, at the quarterfinal stage. We took the risk and outplayed Kerala,’’ said the coach.

The Chhattisgarh girls put up a half-hearted performance against Punjab and ensured that the team finished third in the group behind Maharashtra and Punjab, but ahead of Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh.

The Victorious Chhattisgarh team.-SANDEEP SAXENA

In Stephy Nixon, P. S. Jeena and P. S. Neenu Mol, Kerala had quality players who could turn a match around, but Chhattisgarh outplayed Kerala 76-46 in the quarterfinals after having led 27-25 at halftime.

That was Chhattisgarh’s method — gauging its opponent in the early stages before pouncing on the kill in the climax, leaving little room for recovery for the rival.

Host Delhi, which was the last team to beat Railways in the final in 2003 in Hyderabad, pulled through nicely for the bronze medal ahead of Maharashtra.

For her consistently strong performance in the knock-out phase when she collected 69 points in three matches, and for scoring 52 points in four matches in the league phase, Kavita Kumari was adjudged the ‘Most Valuable Player’ and presented the trophy instituted in memory of the former Secretary General of the Basketball Federation of India, Harish Sharma.

Much in contrast to all the drama in the women’s event, the Tamil Nadu men played a consistently solid game to clinch the eighth national title for the State. It was a tame affair in the final as Tamil Nadu blasted its way to a 74-57 triumph against Punjab, with Rikin Pethani and Pratham Singh playing at their best.

Unlike Tamil Nadu which had many players to bank on, Punjab tended to rely heavily on Palpreet Singh and Ranvir Singh. They were particularly subdued in the final, after having been the heroes of the team’s memorable victory over the defending champion Uttarakhand in the semifinals.

Tamil Nadu did have to negotiate a tricky stage in the semifinals against Services, in which it had led 71-49 at one stage after having enjoyed a 55-36 lead at halftime. A champion 28 times, Services which had two formidable players in Jai Ram and Gopal Ram, had bridged the gap to one point at 81-82 with barely two minutes left on the clock.

Captain Vineeth Mathew expanded the lead before Pratham Singh and Prasanna Venkatesh handled the climax with confidence for Tamil Nadu.

Uttarakhand looked in control against Punjab as it led 57-46 eight minutes into the third quarter of the semifinals, after having led 45-38 at halftime. The team was without some of its leading players like Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Trideep Rai, but in Amritpal Singh, Yadwinder Singh, Riyazuddin, S. Sridhar and Shabeer Ahmad, it had a competent bunch that asserted its rich experience.

The team paid dearly as Amritpal Singh and Yadwinder Singh mocked at the referee with a sarcastic spell of clapping for a foul. That resulted in the referee slapping two further technical fouls on the team which also proved to be the fifth foul for Amritpal who had to thus warm the bench when the fortunes turned dramatically against the team on the court.

For his all-round game and excellence in defence, more than his increasingly improved shooting as the tournament meandered to the climax, Rikin Pethani was adjudged the ‘Most Valuable Player’ in the men’s section.

Indian basketball was quite vibrant, and it was a pity that there was no ‘live’ television coverage despite the mushrooming of sports channels.