Winner take-all showdown

Winner take-all showdown

Maseru – Set aside space in your diaries – history is happening this weekend. After a season of sweat, tears and sometimes blood, finally we are here and by the end of Saturday, either Lichocha Shooting Rifles or Lerotholi Polytechnic will be crowned champions of the revamped National Basketball League (NBL) for the first time.

It is Game 5 of the best-of-five NBL finals and Saturday’s climax at Lehakoe Recreation Centre will represent the end of a journey that started last September. Back then 10 teams had hopes of being Lesotho’s basketball champions. That number decreased to four last month when the NBL playoffs started and now only two remain, with one last game standing in the way of glory.

The stage is set. Lichocha, who are making their second finals appearance in a row, are the favourites while Lerotholi, who shocked juggernauts KTA All-Stars to get here, are underdogs in a classic David against Goliath setting. Even more appetising, both teams have shown no fear in the finals and have traded blows throughout the series like two heavyweight boxers. In Game 1 two weeks ago the match went to overtime before Lichocha prevailed 77-75 in what felt like a momentum building win.

However, Lerotholi stormed back to take a 2-1 series lead only for Lichocha to fend off defeat on Sunday with a spirited 83-80 win to force Game 5. Now it all comes to this – a winner-takes-all showdown. “We are not under pressure to win, it is our opponents who are pressured,” Lerotholi coach Tumelo Mara insisted this week. “For the past two years (Lichocha) have been reaching the playoffs but with no win, so there is no pressure on us – we just need to go and win for ourselves and our fans.”

Lerotholi, of course, used to be fixtures on this stage when institution teams ran the show in the 2000s. Back then Fokothi alongside the National University of Lesotho’s Rovers were the teams to beat and Lerotholi won the NBL title in 2007. However, with the rise of clubs such as KTA All-Stars and Bashana Baheso (BBH) the subsequent years were lean for Fokothi and this is the first time they are in the finals since the turn of the decade. They have taken advantage of the moment, though.

After squeezing into the playoffs by finishing fourth in the regular NBL league season, Lerotholi upset the odds to beat KTA All-Stars in the semis and have been a breath of fresh air with their enthusiasm all season. That is not to say Lichocha have had it easy. Despite coming into the NBL finals as favourites, Lichocha overcame their share of odds, the biggest of which came last September when club president and head coach Bokang Sehlabaka was given a ten-year ban by the Lesotho Basketball Association after he pleaded guilty to three counts of fraud.

At the time questions hovered over Lichocha’s ability to remain amongst the NBL’s elite and there were genuine doubts they would even make the playoffs. However, Malebo Mohasi admirably stepped in as a player-coach to steady the ship. Despite not always showing their sparkling best, Lichocha held firm in the league to qualify for the playoffs where they beat defending champions Bokamoso South last month in a tough semi-final series. Now Lichocha believe it is finally their time.

“We want to win,” said Mohasi who was part of last year’s painful NBL finals loss to Bokamoso. “We believe we are the better team and we believe we will perform as we did in the past games,” he continued. “(Game 4) was hard. We could have lost but we managed to come through and that gives us belief we will win (Game 5).” The confidence of both teams is why these finals have been so tightly-contested and the intensity has only increased as the games have passed.

Sunday’s Game 4 was a particularly tense and physical affair filled with fouls and mistakes. In the deciding Game 5, poise amidst the inevitable pressure will likely be the deciding factor. “Our previous game was flooded with way too many fouls and too many turnovers,” Lerotholi’s Mara said. “We have been working on both those areas so that we can play a good game this coming weekend.” The star players will also have to come to the party.

So far Lichocha’s Khotso Masela and Lerotholi’s Nako Mofube have inspired their respective teams with their crunch-time scoring and in finals it is usually a moment of magic that decides matters. A final word to the coaches, then. “If it happens that we lose this game, reaching this stage will be a big achievement for me and the players because it is my first time coaching this team,” Lerotholi coach Mara said.

“All my players are going to be there (for Game 5). We are fortunate we don’t have any injuries from our last game so we just want to win.” And Lichocha? “To win this game we need to stick to the fundamentals of basketball, we need to be patient,” Mohasi said. “Good thing we did not pick up any injuries from our previous games.”

“Everybody is ready.” Good thing for the fans – we have a Game 5 to enjoy.

Nkheli Liphoto

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