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How Stade Malien became Kings of Basketball Africa League Sahara Conference

From the 2023 Road to Basketball Africa League (BAL) to the Sahara Conference in Dakar, Stade Malien have shown they are not in this season’s edition to complete the numbers but compete.

A team made up of young players with an average age of 25 defied all odds to make it to the 2023 Playoffs in Kigali.

Road To BAL

Enroute to Dakar, the Bamako based side won two out of three games played in the Group phase of the BAL qualifiers held in Niamey, Niger in October 2022. Their only defeat was against Abidjan Basket Club (ABC) Fighters in their opening game. They however bounced back to defeat Elan Coton and Nigelec as they advanced to the Elite 16.

In the Elite 16, eight teams from the first round were joined by six teams that qualified in the 2022 qualification while NBA academy Africa and Elan Coton of Benin Republic joined as wild cards.

The Elite 16 was divided into East and West Division with each having two groups each. Stade Malien were drawn in Group B of the West Division alongside SLAC of Guinea, Cameroon’s FAP and Nueva Era of Equatorial Guinea.

Not regarded as favourites, Stade Malien won all three group games but lost the semi final against ABC who finished second in Group A. The victory earned the Ivorians a spot in the 2023 BAL.

With only one spot up for grabs to the BAL from the West Division, Stade Malien knew they had to bring everything to the floor to qualify for their first appearance in the elite tournament.

With progress to the BAL at stake, Stade Malien went on to defeat Bangui Sporting Club 62-59 to grab the final spot from the West Division. They finished 6-2 in the road to BAL qualifiers.

Making their BAL debut

Grouped alongside defending champions US Monastir, Rwanda Energy Group (REG), Abidjan Basket Club Fighters, AS Douanes and Kwara Falcons in the Sahara Conference held in Dakar, Stade Malien had to win more than just a game to pull through despite this being their first appearance at the BAL.

They didn’t have the best of starts though.

Their athleticism and aggressiveness at both ends of the court could not earn them a win over the champions Monastir in their first game. Notwithstanding, they picked themselves up in their next game as they overcame Nigerian champions, Kwara Falcons.

A second defeat soon followed, this time it came at the hands of the home side, AS Douanes.

Needing a win in their next games to stand a chance of sealing qualification to the playoffs, Stade Malien produced some of their best performance at the Sahara Conference as they defeated REG and ABC on the final day of the Sahara Conference.

After defeating ABC, Stade Malien head coach Kaba Kante said it was “their turn to win” having tasted consecutive defeats at the hands of the Ivorian side lately.

Prior to the Sahara Conference, ABC Fighters had defeated the Malians thrice in four months – twice at the BAL qualifiers and at the Orange Invitational tournament – held in Abidjan a week to the BAL tipoff.

”Enough is enough they [ABC] can’t continue to beat us like that,” said Kante. “Thankfully we showed them that it was our turn to win.”

That win over ABC by Stade Malien was the biggest defeat inflicted on the Ivorian side in the Sahara Conference. It saw Stade Malien finish with a 3-2 mark and qualify to the playoffs.

Winners of Sahara Conference

Despite winning three games, Stade Malien was made to wait until the last game between US Monastir and AS Douanes.

This was because four teams – ABC, REG,US Monastir and Stade Malien – had all won three games heading into the last game of the Sahara Conference.

At the end of the last game, Stade Malien emerged champions of the Sahara Conference.

This was made possible after a total point aggregate differentials in the games between five teams with a 3-2 record was used to determine the final standings. All five teams with exception of Kwara Falcons finished with a 3-2 mark.

Stade Malien had the highest aggregate point differential with 13 followed by AS Douanes on 12, REG and ABC had -4 and the tie was broken by the team with the higher number of points scored in the games between the two teams. This saw the defending champions of the BAL, US Monastir miss out on the playoffs.

‘As a team we play with our hearts’

Aliou Diarra and Souleymane Berthe formed the core of the team who led the Malian side to the playoffs.

These two young players stood out for Stade Malien from the qualifiers to the Sahara Conference and stayed consistent in five games played in Dakar. 22-year-old Berthe averaged 20.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG while Diarra, 21, registered five double-doubles with an average of 18PPG, 13.4RPG and 2.0 BLKPG.

”As a team we play with our hearts,” Diarra told bal.nba.com.

“This team started to build its identity when we played the qualifiers in Niger and Abidjan. Togetherness has been our strongest strength.”

That togetherness saw Stade Malien make history as debutants. It is left to be seen if they would build on this momentum when the playoffs tip off in Kigali from May 21-27.

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