Fiji women build from scratch in Bengaluru


If you look through FIBA's world rankings for women's basketball, Fiji do not feature in the 77 countries listed at the moment. Forget Australia (4), China (10), Japan (13) and Korea (15) - the four countries that made the Division A semi-finals at the FIBA Asia Cup in Bengaluru and booked their berth for the World Cup in Spain next year - even hosts India (40) and Sri Lanka (56) have enough points to be part of the tally.

The reason for Fiji's exclusion is easy to track. Before coming to the Asia Cup - a first for teams from Oceania since the Oceania Cup stopped being a World Cup qualifier - Fiji last played a competitive match on July 11, 2015. It was the final of the Pacific Games at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji beat American Samoa in the gold medal match, giving both teams a berth to Division B in Bengaluru. Only one of the teams made it though, with American Samoa unable to gather the funds needed for the trip.

Fiji's initiation to Asia was a rough one, beaten 103-38 on their debut by Singapore. Coach Laisiasa Puamau could only call upon eight players on the 12-strong roster, with experienced players like Letava Whippy, Leba Korovou and Valerie Nainima all unable to make the trip. Worse, centre forward Disiola Boseiwaqa had an injury flare-up after playing nine minutes, one that would rule her out of the rest of the tournament.

Enter 24-year-old guard Mili Koyamainavure, who joined the team from their second match against Lebanon (a 90-48 defeat) and has been their outstanding performer since. Koyamainavure scored 13 points in the Lebanon game and then scored 28 of Fiji's 48 against Kazakhstan, where they narrowed the margin of defeat further to 23, down from 65 in the first match.

"We're always playing within the Pacific and Oceania region. So just being able to be here and play against teams like India, Singapore and Lebanon has been a great experience overall," she says after scoring 24 points in a 93-51 defeat to the hosts in the quarter-finals, that put an end to any hopes of making the step up to Division A.

"I think it was just a matter of putting the pieces together. We haven't been training together and had very little time to prepare to come here. I think we have done very well to come here and just to be able to play together as a team."

On Friday, Koyamainavure was the outstanding player on court for the second time in less than 24 hours, her 22 points helping Fiji edge out Sri Lanka 65-64 in a classification match that now means they will not finish at last place overall in the fifteen-team Asia Cup.

Like most of her team-mates, Koyamainavure has to bank on opportunities abroad in the absence of an organised league at home. After playing for the Missouri Western State University for four years, she joined the South East Australian Basketball League (SEABL) where she turns out for Bellamy's Tornadoes, based in Launceston, Tasmania.

"I don't know about the WNBA. Probably not that good," she smiles when asked about her ultimate aim. "I don't have a second job right now, because I am a recent graduate from college. I am just playing basketball for now."

Koyamainavure, who looks up to Kobe Bryant among men and Candace Parker among the women as her idols, has a SEABL team-mate - point guard Lauren Mansfield, who also turns out for the Canberra Capitals in the Women's National Basketball League (WNBL).

Koyamainavure is predicting India to make it to Division A for the next Asia Cup. "I hope India wins this (Division B) -- this is the home country. I have a team-mate in the Australian Opals and I am going to go watch them play and cheer them on, definitely."

For the moment, Fiji have shown the rest of the Pacific region that you can make things happen, provided you are willing to bide your time and learn from your mistakes.

"The competition level is very high," Koyamainavure says about the biggest takeaway from the team's first big competition in years. "Just being here and exposing these players -- we don't usually come out and play like this -- so this is a wonderful opportunity for us and we can take back a lot from this."

A re-entry into the rankings list, one that will place them at a respectable position, would be the starting point.