The packed crowd at Bengaluru’s Sree Kantaveera Stadium chants for “DE-FENCE!” India, the home team, has rarely ever seen home support like this for basketball, much less for an international woman’s match. India has a slim 73-71 lead, but it’s their opponents—Kazakhstan— who are in possession with 23 seconds left in the game.

The chants get louder, but Kazakhstan aren’t fazed. A well-orchestrated inbound play leads to three quick passes between the Kazakh players, until the Indian defence collapses, and Oxana Ossipenko is left open for an easy lay-up under the basket. Kazakhstan tie the score at 73-all.

The crowd moans in shock.

The FIBA Women’s Asia Cup started in Bengaluru on July 23, the most-prestigious women’s international basketball tournament for teams from Asia and Oceania, saw sparse crowds in the initial days. But the fans had turned up for this all-important game on July 29th – the match-up against Kazakhstan is the tournament’s Division B final, the game that would decide if India will qualify back for the higher Division A round in the next edition.

Despite all the success in Division B, Indian basketball will ultimately be judged by performances against the very best. And with less than 20 seconds left in the final, the future of women’s game was at stake.

The Asia Women’s Cup is the first time that India hosted a major FIBA championship on home soil since the same event was held in Chennai back in 2009. Ever since then, Indian basketball has had a topsy-turvy journey. While our top players have gotten modest success abroad, the game’s growth at home was stunted because of a fracture in the executive committees leading the Basketball Federation of India (BFI). Unlike a lot of countries that participate in these international tournaments, India still don’t have professional leagues where players can hone their craft and make a feasible, full-time career out of the game.

So, when the BFI won the rights to host the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup this year, the news was greeted with jubilation, especially by the top players in the team, for whom having the comfort of home would provide a much-needed boost.

Basketball has a whole is a niche, underdeveloped sport in India, but the woman’s game faces an extra hurdle. There are very few units around the country that offer employment in their sports quota for women in basketball. In recent years, while the men have had the option of playing in the UBA Basketball League, the women haven’t been able to earn a living or gain much exposure through the sport. A strong performance in front of the home crowd could come a long way in helping India’s best players get some well-deserved attention.

India started off their tournament in dominant fashion, topping their group with impressive victories over Uzbekistan and Sri Lanka, and coasting past Fiji in the quarter-final. Important players like team captain Anitha Paul Durai, veteran Raspreet Sidhu, point guard Kavita Akula, and the young breakout performer Grima Merlin Varghese, were all at the top of their game.

The semi-final presented India with their toughest challenge yet, against Lebanon. With Lebanon still leading by two points at the end of the third quarter, India needed one last boost to carry them to the final stage. They got just that from Kerala’s star Jeena Scaria, who went into beast mode in the fourth quarter, ultimately finishing with 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists to help India go on a late run and win the game 79-69.

In some ways, starting the 2017 tournament at home in Division B turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Playing against weaker competition, India had a better chance to collect big wins in front of home fans and give the new backbone of players some positive morale to build on. Going undefeated into the finals surely helped further instill the belief that this team belonged in the higher division.

But Division B still had to be won, and with 20 seconds left, the game was still tied.

India’s biggest test, appropriately, came in the Division B final against Kazakhstan. Led by the amazing Nadezhda Kondrakova (who finished with 30 points and 18 rebounds) Kazakhstan were up by 8 at the end of the third quarter.

India needed another big comeback, and once again Scaria was the catalyst. But the real difference-maker proved to be the all-round talent, Shireen Limaye. After a relatively quiet tournament, Limaye stood tall when the stakes are highest, scoring seven points in two minutes before Kazakhstan get possession again.

Then came Ossipenko’s lay-up, tying up the game at 73-each, and leaving India’s fate to that last possession. Now, the shot-clock is turned off.

Still buzzing with confidence, Limaye takes things into her own hands again. Point guard Kavita Akula hands her the ball under the basket and Limaye dribbles it past the halfway line. Kazakh players retreat in defensive position. The rest of the Indians on the floor move forward. Limaye tries to call a for a screen from a teammate, but she is quickly met with a defender. She moves left across the arc of the three-point line and calls for another screen, but still can’t find an opening.

The crowd, aware of the seconds pounding away, begin to chant the countdown: “5… 4…” Limaye has now dribbled from the right to the left side of the basket, and now, time has run out to find a clear lane to attack the basket or find an open teammate. So, she bumps into her defender, dribbles back, and as the countdown comes to “3… 2…” she lets the ball go, her feet just inside the three-point line. “1!” the crowd shouts. The ball goes swish through the basket, the crowd cheers at the top of their lungs, and the buzzer rings to end the game.

India win, 75-73.

The victorious Indian team. Image: FIBA

“Without thinking twice, I took that shot, and it was unbelievable when it went in,” Limaye said. “I felt that all the hard work, the ups-and-downs in camp, my struggle to return to the team after injury, it all paid off.”

“I was speechless! It was the best feeling in the whole world, not just because I scored the winning shot, but that we won that match in front of our home crowd.”

For Scaria, who finished with the top efficiency rating for India throughout the tournament, the victory was extra sweet after the disappointments of 2015, when a young and inexperienced struggled mightily in Wuhan, losing every game and getting relegated to the lower level

“At the halftime in both games, in the locker room, our coach Zoran [Visic] used to motivate us and make us believe that we could complete the comebacks,” said Scaria.

“I spoke to myself during these last two matches, reminded how hard we had worked for the past five months, how we sacrificed everything. I remembered how disappointing it had been for me to lose all the matches in 2015. It had been my dream since then to regain a spot in Division A. I realised that I should play with more courage, no matter who the opponent was.”  

Looking forward, this triumph has now placed India in Division A, where they will replace the relegated North Korean side. India will now have a chance to play against the best teams in Asia and Oceania, such as the top four squads who have qualified for the FIBA World Cup: Asian champions Japan, Australia, China, and Korea. India will definitely be the minnows of the Division when the tournament returns in 2019, but they can be happy knowing that they will gain valuable experience against elite-level teams.

Shiba Maggon, the assistant coach of the squad, was proud of the performances, but believes that their job is just getting started.

“Now, it is the time for us to sustain [this level],” said Maggon. “We need to follow a strict strength and conditioning programme and the same set of players should be called in for camps. The camp should start from next year itself to prepare better.”

For India, this is their chance to build on this opportunity and hope to get some positive results in Division A. Head Coach Zoran Visic’s contract expires at the end of this tournament, but he told The Field last month that he would be interested in staying if BFI offered him an extension. They should do this right away and hope to install a sense of stability in the team’s management instead of leaving the team rudderless again.

Another reason for India’s success at this tournament was that they played in some valuable practice games at the William Jones Cup in Chinese Taipei last month. India lost all their matches at this cup, but they were able to get a better understanding of the team and the confidence eventually shone in Bengaluru. Such exposure games are invaluable, and the more the woman get to play against top talent, the more prepared they will be to step up when their name is called.

“The William Jones Cup helped us to know where we stand and what we need to work,” said Maggon. “Such exposure trips before the championship will develop the team properly. The road to stay in Division A and improve is difficult, but not impossible. This federation has been keen on helping and improving the game standard, so we look forward to have a proper road map to compete.”

At the Division B final, Shireen Limaye was ready when her name was called, hitting an improbable shot to set up India’s triumph. The rise up Asian basketball ranks could be even more improbable, but if the rest of the federation and team is ready for their moment, they will find that India has the potential to hit many more game-winners.