x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Al Zaabi lives up to billing in valiant defeat

A packed gymnasium in Al Wasl saw the UAE team hold their own against the prestigious Duke University side.

DUBAI // For a few hours last night, the UAE looked rather like a basketball country. The national team ran and even dunked with the elite Duke University Blue Devils of the United States, as a near-capacity crowd cheered them on at the Al Wasl arena.

Duke won the friendly game, available via television to a global audience, by a score of 86-66, but the UAE was never embarrassed by the famous college team, winner of four national championships in the US.

Rashid Al Zaabi, the Wasl guard, showed he deserved his mantle as the most talented player in the country, leading the UAE with 14 points and demonstrating quickness and outstanding ball handling.

Mohammed Al Braiki and Khalifa Salem, also perimeter players, showed the foot speed to stay with the collegians, and scored 11 and eight points, respectively.

Omar Al Omeri, the Sharjah standout and perhaps the best shooter in the country, had trouble with the speed of the game but scored eight second-half points in a flurry of activity.

Duke's Andre Dawkins, a three-point specialist, led all scorers with 20 points as the UAE defence backed off and invited him to shoot from distance, and he did, making six three-pointers. Austin Rivers, the gifted freshman guard and son of Doc Rivers, the coach of the Boston Celtics, had 16 points, and Mason Plumlee added 17 for the Blue Devils.

Fans chanted support for both sides inside the crowded and steamy gymnasium, and seemed to go away pleased with the exhibition.

Whether the high-profile game against one of the leading colleges in the US gives the UAE team a boost could be seen as soon as mid-September, when the national team plays in the Fiba Asia Championships with a chance to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics.

The best performance by the UAE side is a fifth-place finish in the continental championships in 1997, but Al Omeri has declared the current UAE side to be "the best ever".

The UAE stayed close for most of the first half as Duke too often settled for three-point shots that often clanked off the rim. The UAE led 3-2 on a three-pointer by the burly Ali Al Hattawi, who plays for Al Shabab, and was tied at 9-9 on a driving layup by the highly regarded Al Zaabi.

Duke finally established some control as Rivers, the prize freshman, drove to the basket for layups, and Dawkins, the junior guard, hit a pair of three-pointers to open the lead to 38-26.

Highlight of the first half was a lob pass by Dawkins to Plumlee, the 6-10 junior forward, who dunked to make it 40-28.

Considering the low profile of basketball in the country, it was startling to see nearly all the seats in the lower level of the arena occupied 25 minutes before tipoff. Courtside tickets were priced at Dh400, and VIP tickets at Dh800. All were sold, organisers said.

One section, behind the scorer's table at midcourt, was dedicated to "Cameron Crazies", the name attached to Duke's most fanatical supporters, usually students, who turn out en masse for home games at Cameron Indoor Stadium on the Duke campus in Durham, North Carolina.

A brisk trade in Duke memorabilia was conducted by vendors behind the basket on the balcony above the basket at the north end of the venue, with fans buying up royal-blue Duke shirts at Dh250 ("Only two left!") and sweatshirts at Dh150.

A percussion corps was seated on the mezzanine, and they pounded out a rhythm during breaks in play. The public address announcer inveighed the crowd to support the home team with chants of "UAE! UAE!" and also led on-court diversions such as shooting contests for fans.

The one noticeable absence from a typical US college basketball experience was the lack of cheerleaders to lead fans and perform gymnastics routines

poberjuerge@thenational.ae