Teams eye title as basketball league playoffs loomDefending champions Golden Gate take on Nepal Police in opener, Times play Tribhuvan Army
The men’s playoffs of the Nepal Basketball League is set to begin from Sunday as all four teams eye the title of the event that has so far offered enthralling contest.
The first match of the playoffs sees Golden Gate International Club taking on Nepal Police Club in the first of the three-match Eliminator. Defending champions Golden Gate have failed to replicate the performance from the last year when they produced a stunning one-point victory over Tribhuvan Army Club to lift the title.
Golden Gate had to struggle to even reach the playoffs this time partly due to few of their key players not being able to play all 14 games of the double-round robin league. In a three-way tie for the last two available spots, Golden Gate got the better of Police and Budhanilkantha Municipality Basketball Club with slim margins where even one slip could have thrown them out of the competition.
Golden Gate lost both their league matches against NPC and will go into the game as clear underdogs since the latter are bolstered by the presence of three lanky Bangladeshi national team players. Golden Gate began their campaign with a 104-69 loss to last year’s finalists Army and went on to lose both their matches against Police.
Skipper Bikash Gurung’s 23 points and 15 rebounds had handed NPC a 79-70 victory in the away match before the holders were handsomely beaten 96-82 courtesy a 27 point from Bimal Jung Karki in the return leg. NPC, however, have not managed to become a commendable force even in presence of the Bangladeshi trio. If a victory over title contenders Times International College boosted their confidence, a shock 75-59 defeat at the hands of lowly Royal Basketball Club in their last league game had given them a reality check.
“I don’t know why we were not able to gather pace that we were looking for but I think a long gap after the league has helped us regroup and we are ready for the playoffs. We had beaten Golden Gate in both the league games and that would be a huge advantage,” NPC manager Devu Jung Shah said on Friday.
Apart from the Bangladesh trio of Shawn Chowdhury, Mohammad Khaled Mehmud Akash and Shahinur Rahman Shojib, NPC will also count on Bikash Gurung, Jasanga Kunwar, Prasang Dhoj Maskey and Karki to topple the champions. Golden Gate on the other hand would like their old warhorses Bipendra Maharjan and Bikram Dangol to fire and expect equally good performances from national team trio Manish Raj Rajopadhyaya, Binod Shrestha and Rajiv Joshi.
Indian hoopster Yogesh Kanderia is the only foreign signing for Golden Gate and has so far fared according to the expectations. But in a do-or-die battle against NPC in the Eliminator from where the winners will play the losers of the Qualifier match between Times and Tribhuvan Army Club, his performance will be crucial.
Times and Army have fought one of the most tough contests of domestic basketball so far with both teams coming out as victors at their backyards. In an intense battle at the Times International College, the hosts had prevailed 103-96 in a match that went to double Over Time and witnessed the suspension of multiple players and officials for disciplinary violations.
Times headed at the Army Headquarter in Bhadrakali for the second leg and were undone by a last-gasp two-pointer from Siddhartha Maharjan to lose 67-66. That defeat not only ended Times’ 11-match winning streak but also pushed them behind in the points table as Army won their remaining games to finish at the top.
On papers, Times will still go as favourites for Sunday’s second game with a list of match-winners in their playing set. Led by national team skipper Sadhish Pradhan, Times have looked solid with youngsters in Bijay Burja, Mabindra Chhetri and Manish KC. The return of defensive player Joshua Shumsher Leslie from America and addition of Sri Lankan basketball star Praneetj Udumalagala have made Times the strongest team of the league.
“Army have a very strong team and we had to struggle a lot in both our matches against them. I know the playoff is going to be another tough competition and we are ready to take up this challenge,” said Pradhan. Army have relied heavily on their home grown talents and, barring the only match against Times, have hardly put their foot wrong.
Against a Times squad that includes three players with over six feet height including Joshua, Udumalagala and Bikram Joshi, Army have to play to their strength and make sure skipper Robin Khatri feeds the ball well to their youngsters Ayush Singh, Nischal Maharjan and Ashish Basnet. Experienced Binod Maharjan, improved Ram Krishna Ghatane and rookie Ajay Kushwaha go neck-to-neck against burly Times players