BEIRUT: Wael Arakji scored 25 points with six rebounds as Lebanon beat India 65-61 in a close fight during the opening day of the FIBA Asia Under-18 championship, which is currently taking place in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Jimmy Salem also scored 18 points for the Cedars, with most of them coming in the third and fourth quarters, while Karim Tabaja added six points along with eight rebounds.
Lebanon had to play most of the game without their tallest player, Yaacoub el-Agha (206 cm), after he committed three early fouls, leaving the chance to his opponent Palpreet Brar to dominate the paint on both ends of the floor, scoring a game high of 28 points with seven rebounds and eight block shots.
Lebanon entered halftime down by four points (30-34) as the team relied mostly on individual efforts – especially on shooting guard Arakji – which resulted in zero assists midway throughout the end of the match.
However, head coach Salim Chemali had sufficient time during the break to direct his players, as the team powered in the third quarter with Arakji firing a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Lebanon a four-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
India tried to pull back again near the end in an attempt to exploit the absence of Arakji, who committed fouls, but Lebanon held on to their win of 65-61.
“I am happy we got off with a win against a very good opposition,” Chemali told FIBA Asia’s website. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But we were lagging a bit in the second quarter. It’s probably got to do more with our jet lag, but our guards were way off the mark today, on both ends.
“I also think our team showed a lot of maturity in handling the pressure situations. Whatever the reason, I am quite happy to start with the win,” Chemali added.
In their next match, Lebanon will meet Hong Kong, who lost their first match against heavyweights China 153-47 in Group A.
Elsewhere, Lebanon men’s team will face archrivals and fellow West Asian team Iran in the William Jones Cup international tournament, which kicks off Saturday.
Iran will play under the name of Mahram Club, and it has been getting ready for the Asian Club championship, which was supposed to take place in Beirut starting Oct. 14 but will possibly be moved to the United Arab Emirates because of security scares and marketing difficulties.
However, Mahram will include most of the national team players, except for the first Iranian ever to play in the NBA, Hamed Haddadi, and NCAA’s standout, Arsalan Kazemi. Meanwhile, the team will be led by such popular players as Samad Bahrami, Mehdi Kamrani, Hamed Afagh and Aren Davoudi.
Lebanon’s coach Ghassan Sarkis has put no pressure on the players to achieve results, as the main objective for this tournament is to gain experience and come in contact with the Asian powerhouses.
“It’s a great tournament with very well-prepared and strong teams. We are coming here with our eyes set on next summer [the World Championship Qualifier 2013],” shooting guard Elie Stephan said. “We had a lot of gaps during our preparation phase in Beirut, but the team has shown character with most of the players regarded as young and motivated to show themselves positively.
“We haven’t had the team to practice with him [American naturalization prospect Jarred Famous] so we can’t decide whether he’s the right player or not, before we’ve seen him in games,” he said.
Lebanon had previously participated three times in the William Jones Cup, finishing on the podium all the three times. In 2007, under the supervision of Serbian coach Dragan Racca, Fadi al-Khatib and his teammates finished second, and again with the same coach they grabbed the bronze medal in 2009, before they got the silver in 2010.
The tournament features some of the other skilled Asian teams such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Jordan. And in the 2012 edition, the U.S. men’s select team will participate. The team is composed of professional players who have played overseas – most notably Marcus Melvin, who previously played in the Lebanese league with Sagesse, and Josh Powell, who spent six years in the NBA.
After Iran, Lebanon will play against South Korea at some point in the tournament.