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Lebanon women rally around 'defence' cry

ESPN

Watching the Lebanese women's basketball team in action, one cannot help but notice a ritual the entire squad performs each time they re-enter the field of play.

Armenian coach Tigran Gyokchyan, easily the tallest member of the contingent, holds his hand up, as players and other members of the support staff reach out and clasp Gyokchyan's arm or connect with whichever compatriot is closest. The collective cry of "DEFENCE" rings loud at the Koramangala Indoor Stadium in Bangalore, as they head back to the court.

Lebanon were up against Singapore, a tricky team which cedes advantage in height but makes up with speed, in a Division B group fixture at the FIBA Asia Cup. The outcome of this match would determine which team will finish second in group B, and thus face the third and final team in group A in the quarter-finals. The eventual champion goes up to the first division for the next Asia Cup in two years. Lebanon did their bit, and eventually won 74-64.

Gyokchyan came on board very recently - "one month and one week ago" in his words - and says that cost them in the first group match where they lost 62-54 to Kazakhstan, a team they could face in the semi-finals.

"We haven't had this [time to develop an understanding] and especially since we have stopped participating in any international competition for six years," Gyokchyan says, referring to the fact that Lebanon haven't been in the main draw of the Asia Cup since successive appearances in Chennai in 2009 and Omura, Japan in 2011.

The first of those appearances in Asia came in 2001, the same year the men won their first of three silvers at the Asia Cup, qualifying them for the World Cup the following year. Men's basketball has taken off with that result -- Lebanon also takes pride in the fact that Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was born in Beirut and spent a large part of his early years in the region -- but the women have failed to replicate that success, despite having a robust league that attracts international players too.

"It's great -- it's one of the best," says shooting guard Lama Moukaddem, who plays for Al Riyadi Beirut, the runners-up in the league's most recent edition. "[The league] is most popular, especially among the men, and women. They've given it a bit more attention. Everyone wants to play basketball."

Al Riyadi and reigning champions Homenetmen supply six of the 10 players in the ongoing tournament, and together brought in seven of the 11 foreign players in the seven-team league. The nationalities range from Lithuanian, Bosnia-Herzegovinian, Serbian, Argentine to Mexican, though the most common source of foreign players remains USA.

In fact, Gyokchyan's team had their hopes pinned on a naturalised American-born player, 6'5" forward Chanita Jordan, but she had to withdraw with an injury a day before their first game against Kazakhstan.

"We depend on her a lot because we are not all very tall," says Moukaddem, who sparked a strong third-quarter performance that helped Lebanon stretch a slender 34-31 half-time lead to a convincing win.

"They [Kazakhstan] had an advantage under the basket and that's why we lost the game. Even though our foreigner wasn't playing, we lost only by eight (points). We watched the tape and we will fix our mistakes and hopefully we will have a better game against them."

Indeed, Singapore almost always found a way back into their group game, and it needed a stern talk from Gyokchyan midway through the first quarter to start getting some fluency in the Lebanese game.

"Coach was stressing on the idea of going on to transition defence because they are a very quick team and they shoot a lot. We had to increase the pressure so that we don't lose at the end," explains Moukaddem.

Gyokchyan, who says he is "happy with the result" but not with the performance, feels the local league can only rise in popularity if the national team does well. "We are improving in many aspects. We are playing better as a team, and in defence," he says. "Women's basketball will be fine in Lebanon if we start getting good results for the girls."

While foreign players are a big draw in the Lebanese league, the players themselves haven't ventured abroad in big numbers just yet. Moukaddem refers to point guard Rebecca Akl, who she says likes to go abroad and play in leagues in Europe, but says basketball as a career is still a limited option for many, herself included. "I don't think about it, because I have two jobs. But I love to play because this is my passion."

A little over a month ago, Serbian coach Zoran Visic had identified Lebanon as one of the potential roadblocks for the hosts India, who are also in Division B at the Asia Cup. As someone who has coached in the Lebanese league, he spoke not just of the Lebanese team's strengths, but a potential weakness in individual egos of the members of the Lebanon squad, a team that could well face India in a shoot-off for Division A qualification on July 29.

It would not appear to be the case in an experienced squad, whose average age of 28 years and average height of 5'9" make them among the best on both counts in the field.

And what of the "defence" ritual? It is one of the few things that make Gyokchyan break into a smile.

"This is what I like most -- the chemistry and how close the team (members) are to each other. They are cheering each other and playing for each other."