Nigerian Rena Wakama has emerged as the first female coach to win the women’s AfroBasket championship final. She led her side to beat Senegal 84-74 in front of mammoth spectators in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
Though the AfroBasket title is Nigeria’s fourth in a row, it is Wakama’s first, according to the BBC. Nigeria is now matching Senegal’s record of four titles since winning the games in the 1970s.
“It has been a long year for me. I asked God for a sign, and this trophy was the biggest of them all,” Wakama is quoted by the BBC.
Nigeria took an early lead in the first quarter of the game. This was threatened later when the Senegal side were raking in points but it was not enough to square the gap between them and the opposing side. Ifanya Okoro was Nigeria’s top scorer with 16 points. Senegal’s point guard Ciarra Dillard outscored her by three. In the third-fourth place play-off, Mali beat hosts Rwanda 89-52.
In a groundbreaking departure from the male-dominated landscape of women’s basketball in Africa over the past 57 years, Coach Wakama emerged as a refreshing and historic change. Despite being appointed less than a month before the Rwanda competition, she displayed remarkable brilliance and prowess.
Wakama’s journey began as a player when she joined Nigeria’s D’Tigress team right after college in 2015. Her playing career was short but significant, including a third-place finish in the 2015 Women’s AfroBasket tournament in Cameroon. Notably, her name was omitted from the team roster due to a registration deadline mishap. Afterward, she transitioned to coaching, driven by a passion she recognized from an early stage, according to The Cable.
Her coaching journey took her through Manhattan College, where she initially served as the director of women’s basketball operations before becoming an assistant coach. This experience eventually led to her appointment as the head coach of the Stony Brook Seawolves’ women’s basketball team.
However, her most significant achievement came when she was appointed as the head coach of Nigeria’s D’Tigress team, succeeding the experienced Otis Hughley. This decision was met with criticism, given Hughley’s track record of leading the team to three consecutive AfroBasket successes. Moreover, Wakama faced the challenging task of preparing the team for the 2023 AfroBasket in a short timeframe.
Ahead of the competition, the Nigerian Basketball Federation announced open tryouts to scout new players for the team, a move that sparked controversy among established D’Tigress players. Some chose not to attend, and a few even announced their retirement, leading to the exclusion of key players from the final roster.
Despite these challenges, Wakama led her new squad to an unexpected and immaculate run at the AfroBasket. The team’s victories included triumphs over the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Mozambique, and Rwanda, securing their place in the final. In doing so, Wakama achieved two historic milestones: becoming the first female coach to lead a team to the AfroBasket final and subsequently winning the competition.