The Spring 2016 Afghanistan Women’s Wheelchair Basketball National Tournament is a wrap after three days of amazing performances by all four teams. As has been the case every time we hold one of our semi-annual tournaments, the teams each took their level of play to new heights and showed greater competitive intensity than they ever had before.

The first round of the tournament saw fairly predictable results, with the defending champions from Mazar-i-Sharif winning all their games (though Kabul gave them a run for their money in the first game of the tournament), and Jalalabad gamely struggling through their first-ever competition with their cobbled-together roster of brand new Jalalabad players and dedicated fill-ins from Kabul’s second tier. Jalalabad gradually improved with each game of the first round, but only managed to score two points in each of its games before finally clicking in its semifinal against Mazar and putting 8 points on the board. It was a great way to end the newest team’s first two days of the tournament and gave them hope and confidence that they would be able to grow quickly in the coming six months and come back ready to compete with the rest of the teams at the next tournament.

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Zeba of Jalalabad takes in her first competitive wheelchair basketball experience (all photos in this post courtesy of Michael Glowacki)

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Jelwa of Jalalabad goes all out chasing down a loose ball…

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…and bravely picks herself up afterward.

The surprise of the first round for me was seeing how much the team from Herat had improved. They took their last place finish in the fall championship very hard and clearly used it as motivation to prepare for this tournament. Despite its best efforts, Herat narrowly lost to both Mazar and Kabul in the first round, setting them up for a semifinal matchup with Kabul, a team they had never beaten in the year-and-a-half since their team was formed. The semi-final was an incredible game – very low scoring due to the great defense played by both teams, yet captivating the entire time. It felt more like a soccer match than a basketball game, with the crowd cheering wildly when a player would finally break free for a shot, even if she didn’t manage to score. The gymnasium was so deafeningly loud at points that none of the players could hear my referee’s whistle, leading to plays continuing for several seconds after fouls – twice resulting in scores that I had to waive off – while I tried in vain to get the players’ attention over the deafening cacophony. In the end, Herat gutted out one of the hardest-fought victories I’ve ever seen, with its young star, Sumaya, converting a layup with under 30 seconds to play that iced a four point win. Their celebration after the game was as joyous as any championship celebration. Even the Maimana men’s team joined in, leading a spirited dance circle that had the entire gymnasium clapping along. The huge smiles on all the Herat players’ faces showed the clear relief that they had finally beaten a Kabul team that had been so untouchable to them for the entirety of their existence. They would play Mazar for the championship the next day and they were positively beaming with excitement and anticipation of that matchup.

Between the third place game and the final this morning, the ICRC held an exhibition futsal match between two teams of disabled children playing on prosthetic limbs built here at the ICRC Orthopedic Center along with kids with polio and cerebral palsy. The players ranged in age from around 6 to 12, and their play was unbelievable! I’d seen a bit of futsal (soccer played in a gymnasium on a pitch the same size as a basketball court) played by adults here, but it was my first time watching players this young. They were dribbling, passing, and shooting with incredible skill – some on above-knee prostheses! It was so much fun, and the kids were elated to be playing in front of such a large and vocal contingent of new fans.

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Young futsal stars wow the crowd

As the time for the championship game arrived, the magnitude of the moment was showing clearly on the faces of the Herat players. Mazar, which has won two championships and played in two other finals, was much more calm and jumped out to a dominant first quarter performance. Mazar built an early 15-2 lead, and the gathered crowd started to sense that they would run away with the championship.

No one told that to the Herat players, though, and in the second quarter they came out with a new determination. They slowly chipped away at the Mazar lead behind fantastic defense and unselfish team play on offense. By the end of the third quarter, they had taken a two-point lead and the team bench was jubilantly chanting “HER-AT! HER-AT!” along with most of the 200 fans across the court.

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Sumaya of Herat drives to the basket against Nadia of Mazar

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Shabana of Herat basks in the glow of leading her team’s comeback

In the fourth quarter, Mazar leaned on its experience to shake off the torpor it had fallen into during Herat’s stirring comeback. The two teams battled back-and-forth throughout the final frame, but Mazar’s players made multiple clutch plays on offense and defense to just edge the by-now-exhausted Herat team, finally winning 30-24.

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The Mazar players and coach Basir huddle during a timeout before staging their game-winning rally

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Khalida cheers from the bench as her Mazar team pulls off its second consecutive championship

This was the first time an Afghan team – male or female – has managed to defend its title and repeat as national champions. The Mazar players and their coach, Basir, celebrated wildly their well-deserved victory. Congratulations to all on a truly amazing tournament. The momentum of women’s wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan is only going to continue to build with these types of performances.

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