KIGALI, Rwanda -- The Basketball Africa League final is set, with Egyptian giants Al Ahly beating Cinderella side Stade Malien in the semifinals on Wednesday to join AS Douanes of Senegal in the title decider in Kigali on Saturday.
Earlier in the day, Douanes shocked pre-tournament favourites and unbeaten Angolan side Petro de Luanda to secure an unlikely title shot, and Malien nearly did the same, but lost 78-73 at the BK Arena.
It was a closer contest than the scoreline suggests, at least for the first three quarters. The team from Mali, who won their Conference against all expectations to qualify for these playoffs and then won their quarterfinal, put up a fight in front of a vocal Rwandan crowd, never falling more than five points behind before staging multiple comebacks.
The game was slightly overshadowed by very strict umpiring, with the fourth quarter turning into what felt like a free throw contest, as the slightest touch was blown up by the officials. Malien attempted 37 free throws in the game, scoring 26, while Ahly bagged 22 of 35 attempts.
Ehab Amin, who was the top scorer for Ahly, and indeed the game, with 21 points, told the media he'd 'rather not comment on the officiating,' but added that the team were lucky to escape after committing too many genuine fouls.
A riveting encounter to wrap up the last four stages of the #BALFinals.— Basketball Africa League (@theBAL) May 24, 2023
Egyptian side @Ahly_Basketball came out on top to secure a spot in Saturday's BAL Final. #TheBAL pic.twitter.com/nrhMs1z25y
In reality, the decisive factor in Ahly's win was their depth on the bench, combined with their experience playing as a team. Egypt has a very competitive domestic league, one of the more established competitions on the continent, and their unity shone through when it mattered.
Amin, a former Oregon Fighting Ducks player, said of the side's cohesive play: "I think [experience] is one of our advantages; we've played a lot of finals and been in these situations before on the winning side and on the losing side. We just came from the finals of the Super League in Egypt.
"All the games were very tough and very close, so I think we're a super close group. Even Corey [Webster], Nuni [Omot] and Michael [Thompson], who haven't been with us all year, came together with us. I think that's a great advantage for us -- that we've been through a lot together."
As for Malien, who was a crowd favourite in both Dakar and Kigali, they now must prepare for a third place playoff against Petro, who will be smarting after throwing away their best chance at winning their first title.
But Ahly now have to prepare for an opponent they were not expecting, as everyone and their bookie predicted a final against Petro. But Douanes will be no pushovers, and Ahly coach Augustine Julbe knew that.
Julbe, who won the first edition of the BAL as coach of fellow Egyptian side Zamalek, said: "We have to understand the things we did wrong and understand the new opponent.
"Everyone was expecting Petro. We have an opponent that plays as tough as Stade Malien or more."
The BAL final will be played on May 27, while the third place game between Petro and Malien will be the evening prior.