Author: Vadim ALEKSANDROV Baku
The Azerbaijani national basketball team has won the Promotion Cup, in other words, the European championship qualifier in Division C, for the second time in a row. The competition, held in Edinburgh, turned out to be a successful one for a team which differed slightly from that of two years ago. This, however, did not affect the result.
Out of the "well"
The team's head coach, Elxan Aliyev, observed that in the run-up to preparations for the contest, they had had problems in staffing the team. "David Barbakadze, whom we have naturalized, was not in Azerbaijan. Tahir Baxsiyev, who has done so much for our basketball, had undergone difficult surgery and is still recovering. Aleksandr Ryndin and Zaur Pasayev (who was recognized as the most valuable player of the Promotion Cup in Albania two years ago) failed to go to Edinburgh. This means our reserve was quite short-staffed and, in the absence of a number of leading players, we recruited Emil Mirzayev, Anar Sariyev, Rufat Mahmudzada and Farid Amirov. These are the guys who will represent Azerbaijan in the world youth championship in Romania in six weeks' time. The starting five also included Amil Hamzayev, for whom this was a baptism of fire. But the new team's debut was successful," thinks the coach.
In the tournament final, Elxan Aliyev's team beat Moldova 80-78, taking revenge for their defeat in the group stage. Overall, our team's path through the tournament was almost the same as two years ago when our basketball players celebrated their first victory in the Promotion Cup. Then our team were confronted in the final by Albania, who had beaten us in an earlier stage, but the Azerbaijani team gained the upper hand in the decisive fixture. This time as well, Moldova beat us in the preliminary stage, but we managed to exact revenge in the final. But our victory was not easy: the first two quarters saw the rival team in control as they won the starting set (24-17) and were better after the break (23-20). In the third quarter the Azerbaijani national team managed to seize the initiative, winning the third set 25-22. The final quarter was decisive: here our team played confidently on rebounds and attack and beat their rivals 18-9. Of course, the best in the team was Tahir Baxsiyev, who scored 25 points, made eight rebounds and four assists.
"Our team started the game very badly. They were either in a bad mood or negligent towards the opposition. Some players started the game in a slipshod manner, so some explanatory work had to be done during the breaks. In this game, I banked on the veterans as the debutants did not stand on their own two feet firmly enough. We finished the final with the basketball players I knew. The promising Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn played very well - when Moldova reduced the margin, I sent him onto the court. He grasped the ball and gained four points for the team. In the final we managed to get out of a "hole" that no-one else would have been able to get out of. The team were 17 points behind, but managed to win in the end," Aliyev said.
Meanwhile, the superiority of our national team in the Promotion Cup was proven not just by results, but also by individual performances. For example, in the nomination for "rebound leader", the best player was David Barbakadze, while Fuad Niftaliyev retains first place in the nomination for best assistant. What is more, the team played without Aleksandr Ryndin and Zaur Pasayev, who could not help their comrades because of injury. But the team showed that it had hidden reserves and can play better.
It is curious that, while in the group stage the team's leading scorer was Barbakadze, in the semi-final it was Fuad Niftaliyev and, in the final, the best sniper was Tahir Baxsiyev. So these players carried the burden of point scoring, but there are some nuances here as well. For example, Barbakadze joined the team very late because of the championship in Georgia. By that time the team was in its second preparatory team practice session. "But taking account of David's playmaking and seeing his throwing arm, I always expect more from him. He played very usefully, picked up many balls and without him the fight for first place would have been a problem - just as it would have been without Niftaliyev and Baxsiyev," Aliyev admits.
It is curious that the champions were honoured in an old gallery-library built in 1872. The most valuable player was named at an evening party - the coaches voted, almost unanimously, for Fuad Niftaliyev. What is more, our national team entered the hall to a standing ovation from all teams. The team came first again and made it into Division B of the European championship qualifiers. Our national team proved that they can be successful even without Rimas Kurtinaitis, who previously helped them to win the Promotion Cup and to come first in the games of Islamic countries three years ago. Everyone knows the expression: "It is easier to win a title than to defend it." So two years ago our team came first in the contest and now it has triumphed again, demonstrating an enviable consistency. Although the team has a many problems, since it is very under-manned, this victory in the Promotion Cup will become the first bright page in its modern history - a kind of starting point.
Aliyev himself also observed that the main distinguishing feature of this victory is that the team was not led by a foreigner. "We prepared for the contest very seriously and over a long period and foreigners also played in our clubs - NTD Service Devon and Gala. The guys who represent the Azerbaijani national team trained and played against them, i.e. their playing practice was at a high level. What is more, when Rimas Kurtinaitis was here, both the national team and Gala had a chance to travel to one of the most developed basketball countries - Lithuania - in order to hold practice matches there. All this allowed our guys - Fuad Niftaliyev, Tahir Baxsiyev, Aleksandr Ryndin and others - to make progress. It seems to me that it was easier to play with such a level of preparedness. It was much more difficult to win the Promotion Cup this time because we did not have sparring partners or practice," said the coach.
Our team will face some problems in Division B. "We are trying to travel with five or six players, but this time the European youth championship will be a great help for us. It will show what our rising generation of players is like and what we can expect from it in the future. Yes, we must think about our performance in Division B of the European Championship and avoid making reckless statements. In order to play at such a level, it is necessary to select a team that will be able to play, not just to participate, so that this team can be of benefit to new promising guys who are currently only watching. We are not ready to play with this team in Division B," the coach admitted.