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Nigeria makes history at FIBA Women’s World Cup

D’Tigress is the first African team to reach the quarterfinals in tournament history

When it comes to the FIBA Women’s World Cup, the U.S. women’s national team could be considered synonymous with the tournament’s gold medal.

Dating to 1986, the U.S. has won six of the last eight World Cups, including the last two in 2010 and 2014. The gold medal is no longer a goal for the United States, it’s the standard. The team is like the release of a Kendrick Lamar album: Every time they step out on the floor they’re at the top of their game, but with each appearance they want to prove they’ve become that much more dominant than the rest of the world.

Team USA has already advanced to the quarterfinals after sweeping the group stage and posting the highest-scoring offense of the 16-team field. Through its first three games, the team, led by South Carolina women’s basketball coach and WNBA great Dawn Staley, has demonstrated why, despite only playing as a collective for a few weeks, it’s poised for another gold-medal run.

But while most storylines within group play have centered on tournament favorites such as Team USA or other notables such as Australia and Canada, perhaps the greatest story of the tournament so far belongs to a team, or rather an entire continent, that wasn’t expected to win a single game.

The Nigerian national team has emerged as the unlikely but overwhelmingly welcomed surprise of the World Cup. The team, also referred to as D’Tigress, made history Sunday when it defeated Turkey 74-68, earning its first win in tournament history.

Senegal, which played just hours before Nigeria, became the first-ever African country to win a group-stage game with a win over Latvia.

To prove it wasn’t simply the one-off feel-good story of the tournament, however, Nigeria came out Tuesday against Argentina and won again. On Wednesday, the team continued its historic run in a nail-biting 57-56 win over Greece to advance to the quarterfinals. (Senegal will tip off against Spain with the same stakes Wednesday night.)

To understand how impressive Nigeria’s World Cup run has been requires a step backward and a deeper look at the context of its Cup appearance. Nigeria is making its first tournament appearance since 2006 in Brazil, where it finished dead last. This year’s tournament is just its second appearance since African countries received berths for the World Cup in 1970.

The team qualified for this year’s tournament after winning AfroBasket (the continental championship of Africa) for the first time in 12 years despite being recognized by FIBA as the sixth-best team in Africa. Nigeria arrived in Tenerife, Spain, with the second-lowest FIBA ranking (42nd) among the 16 participating teams. Only Belgium (78th), which is making its World Cup debut, ranked lower than the Nigerians. As far as the opponents they bested, Argentina entered the tournament ranked 16th and Turkey, which finished fourth at the last World Cup in 2014, was ranked seventh.

Team Nigeria is led by two players who are no strangers to women’s college basketball fans stateside. In the D’Tigress backcourt is Promise Amukamara, a former guard at Arizona State who currently plays overseas in Romania. She’s averaging 10 points and 2.2 assists for Nigeria. In the frontcourt is Evelyn Akhator, a former standout center at the University of Kentucky who was drafted No. 3 overall by the WNBA’s Dallas Wings in 2017. She’s averaging 14.5 points, which ranks 14th among tournament players, and 10.3 rebounds, which ranks third.

While its win against Greece kept the Cinderella story alive for D’Tigress, its fairy-tale ending will likely arrive Friday, as its next opponent is Team USA. Nigeria, which relies on scrappy play, leads the tournament in offensive rebounding to compensate for its largely undersized roster, which will likely be outmatched by the American All-Star frontcourt of Tina Charles (13.3 points, 6.0 rebounds), A’ja Wilson (15.7 points, 4.7 rebounds) and Breanna Stewart (16.3 points, 6.7 rebounds).

This year’s World Cup team sits stacked, boasting many of the best players in the world — commonplace in recent decades. Players such as Stewart, Sue Bird, Diana “the GOAT” Taurasi, Charles, Brittney Griner and Wilson make up a dominant roster that many would consider a cheat code. The team is led by Staley.

The megastar talent at the tournament has not been limited to Team USA. Black players, many of whom belong to teams that could formidably challenge the United States at the podium, have shown up and shown out at the World Cup all week long.

Players to watch include Australia’s Liz Cambage, who electrified the WNBA last season by breaking the single-game scoring record with a 53-point performance against the New York Liberty in July. Cambage, who won the 2018 WNBA scoring title, has carried her offensive onslaught to the World Cup. Her 27.7 points per game through three tournament games leads all players.

Former UConn star and current Liberty guard Kia Nurse has lit up the scoreboard as the top performer for Team Canada. Nurse sits second behind Cambage in scoring at 19.7 points per game. Other players to watch include Sandrine Gruda of France (11.7 points, 7.7 rebounds) and Astou Ndour of Spain (13 points, 4.3 rebounds), who currently plays with the Chicago Sky.

Sean Hurd is an associate editor for The Undefeated. He believes the “flying V” is the most important formation in sports history.