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Silverbacks eager to rub shoulders with Africa’s elite

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Our goal is to qualify for the Afrobasket

 

For the Uganda national team players and coach Mandy Juruni, there has been little rest. Juruni and his players did not enjoy much of a festive season as they have been hard at work, in attempting to qualify for their third FIBA Afrobasket in a row.

The Silverbacks, as the Uganda basketball team is known, has experienced growth under the tutelage of Juruni, who assumed the coaching role in 2014. And since his appointment, Uganda qualified for the 2015 and 2017 editions of the tournament.

Uganda will hope the toil and sacrifice, will again result in a ticket to the marquee continental event in Rwanda (24 August-5 September).

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Uganda coach Mandy Juruni knows the task ahead is still difficult. Pictures: FIBA

But before they can even think of the tournament itself, Uganda must negotiate their way through the qualification process. The Silverbacks head to Monastir, Tunisia for the second qualifying window (February 17-21), with a 3-2 record. They will have a measure of confidence after victories over group E opponents, Cape Verde and Morocco in the opening qualifying window, held in Egypt last year. The East African’s only loss came at the hands of the hosts.

As mentioned earlier, the reasoning for the extra work is that players need to remain motivated, as taking their eye off the ball can be costly. Another issue has also been the lack of action on the court, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a technical team, we sat down after the first window and decided we are not taking a lot of time off. We wanted to keep the boys engaged as there has not been competitive basketball in Uganda because of the pandemic,” said the 38-year-old Juruni. “We started training in the third week of December. We had a few days off during the Christmas break and got right back at it on the first week of January. ”

While the lack of competitive basketball is lamentable, and Uganda’s defeat against Egypt showed as much. Juruni, who has won a combined 12 league titles in the men’s and women’s local league, will be buoyed by the two victories his team notched.

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Uganda’s Ishmael Wainright has been a go-to player in terms of scoring.

“It’s been difficult because in basketball, to be in good game shape, you have to compete. Just training only is not good enough. You have to play games,” said Juruni, who reflected on their first round of qualifiers. “Definitely in the first window, it was difficult for us, we had not played a competitive match since March. Our first competitive game was against Egypt. We gave it our best. At the end of the third quarter, we were still in the game. In the fourth quarter, we ran out of steam and lost focus. But in our next games, because we had played before, we were much better.”

The talents of American-born small forward, Ishmail Wainright, shooting guard Robinson Opong and point guard Jimmy Enabu, have helped put the Silverbacks’ qualifying destiny in their own hands. The scoring feats of Wainright (21.3 points per game), Opong (19.0 points per game) and Enabu (17.7 points per game) have been crucial to Uganda’s campaign. A factor Juruni acknowledges, but he also indicated that it would take more than the scoring ability of the trio to make it to the Afrobasket.

We are happy with the performances of those three. But for us to succeed, we will need more than that. We need everyone in the team to contribute positively. We believe the team that we have can do that. So we want our best players to continue playing well. We want the other seven or eight players to come on board as well. The more we contribute individually, the better it is for the team,” said the former point guard.

Juruni has ensured that his team does not rest on its laurels. He is also aware that the job is half-done, and familiar foes with similar desires stand in their way. The physical education teacher is well-versed with the above scenario after Uganda dropped the ball attempting to qualify for a major tournament.

“Our goal is to qualify for the Afrobasket. I know that it is not going to come easy. We have to work for it; we have to respect our opponents because they are good basketball nations. We have been in a situation like this in the World Cup qualifiers. We don’t want to be comfortable because we won two games. We want to train hard and have the best preparation possible to have a better campaign in the second window,” said Juruni, who coaches local club City Oilers.

It has not been ideal preparation for Uganda, but they have faced the challenge head-on. They will need to be resilient, tenacious and make the most of the advantage they hold if they are to rub shoulders with the continents elite basketball nations again.

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