The U.S. Virgin Islands’ senior women’s national basketball team faces a busy weekend in El Salvador at the FIBA CentroBasket Women’s Championship.
The USVI National Team will have to play four games over a five-day stretch beginning today, when they face Puerto Rico at the Jose Aldolfo Pineda National Gymnasium in San Salvador.
“Going two days back-to-back is tough, and going three [days] is tough – but five [days]? It’s definitely challenging, especially with a short roster,” USVI head coach Tajama Abraham-Ngongba said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
“Obviously, we love playing the competition, but the recovery [between games] is going to be tough.”
However, the prize is a berth in the upcoming FIBA Women’s AmeriCup 2021. The top four finishers all advance to the tournament, scheduled for June 11-19 in Puerto Rico.
“We understand what we’ve got to get done,” Abraham-Ngongba said. “For the girls, their job is to step on the floor and compete one game at a time. If we’re doing that, things will take care of themselves.”
It could have been even tougher for the U.S. Virgin Islands and the other teams competing in the CentroBasket tournament.
The original field was six teams — the USVI, Puerto Rico, host team El Salvador, Costa Rica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
However, less than two days before the first game, Cuba’s national team withdrew from the CentroBasket tournament due to what sources said were “a number of positive COVID tests” that would not allow the team to travel to El Salvador.
While officials with FIBA Americas, which is organizing the tournament, have issued no public comments on the withdrawal, Cuba’s name and team information have been removed from the event’s website, and the schedule has been adjusted.
“It’s an uncertain time,” Abraham-Ngongba said. “In the NCAA Tournament, a couple of teams had to be pulled because of [positive] tests. But we’ve got everybody here.”
The U.S. Virgin Islands will have only nine players on its roster for the CentroBasket tournament, with several key players from past national teams missing due to either COVID-19 travel restrictions, or for other reasons.
For example, forward Natalie Day — the most valuable player in the 2017 CentroBasket won by the USVI — will miss this year’s tournament after having a baby several weeks ago. Also missing is forward Victoria Hamilton, who just started a new job.
But it’s the COVID-19 travel restrictions have been most detrimental to fielding a team, Abraham-Ngongba said.
“COVID has definitely shortened our roster,” she added. “We had a couple players who could not leave their campus in college because some universities had said that if you leave campus, you can’t come back.
“Then we lost Natalie and Victoria — we’re definitely missing those two captains, and it’s going to be tough. But this group doesn’t let those things affect their mindset going in. They’re ready to compete and battle.”
However, while having fewer players than the other four teams, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ roster does have experience — five players who were part of the USVI’s winning 2017 CentroBasket team, and three others who have played in FIBA events in the past.
That group will be spearheaded by captains guards Imani Tate and Lanese Bough, and 6-foot-2 center Anisha George.
The 5-8 Tate, currently playing in the Spanish women’s pro league, was the USVI’s No. 2 scorer in the 2017 CentroBasket at 15 points per game. Bough, also 5-8, led the tournament in assists (6.6 per game), while George — who now plays in Switzerland’s women’s pro league — was Day’s primary backup, averaging 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 points per game.
Also back from that 2017 team are 5-7 guard Kadesha Barry and 5-8 guard-forward Taylor Jones. The players with past FIBA international experience are 5-8 guard Akeema Richards, who played on the USVI’s CentroBasket teams in 2012 and 2014; 5-4 guard Akia Frett, who played on both the junior and senior women’s teams between 2013-2015; and 5-2 guard Brittney Matthew, who was on the USVI senior team between 2011-2015.
The only relative newcomer to the USVI roster is 5-11 forward Naja Ngongba — yes, the coach’s daughter — who completed playing in a Maryland high school league with her Woodbridge (Va.) High School team.
“I leaned on [assistant coach] Clint Williams, because I wanted an objective decision,” Abraham-Ngongba said. “She knew that if she didn’t do well, she’d be back on the plane home.”
That’s not a position any of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ players want to be in, especially with that AmeriCup berth at stake.
However, even shorthanded, Abraham-Ngongba believes this group has a chance at earning a trip to Puerto Rico.
“We’ve got the girls to buy into what we need to do in this tournament,” she said. “For me as a coach, that’s the important thing.
“This group seems to be thoroughly excited to be able to come down here and compete. They’re really pumped up, and ready to step on the court and play.”