From their qualification journey all the way to the Sahara Conference in Dakar Malian basketball giants Stade Malien have proven Africa a force to reckon with they are. A young team with players of an average age of 25, the Malian basketball league champions achieved a great feat by making it to the playoffs of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) that will take place in Kigali, Rwanda in May. Besides, they won the Sahara Conference ahead of the likes of BAL defending champions US Monastir, Rwanda Energy Group and ABC Fighters. Here is a brief recap of their strides: Qualification to the BAL On their way to the conference games in Dakar, Stade Malien won two out of three games played in the Group phase of the BAL qualifiers held in Niamey, Niger in October 2022. Their only defeat was against Côte d’Ivoire’s Abidjan Basketball Club (ABC) Fighters in their opening game. They, however, bounced back to defeat Elan Coton and Nigelec as they advanced to the Elite 16. In the Elite 16, eight teams from the first round were joined by six teams that qualified in the 2022 qualification while NBA academy Africa and Elan Coton of Benin Republic joined as wild cards. The Elite 16 was divided into East and West Division with each having two groups each. Stade Malien were drawn in Group B of the West Division alongside SLAC of Guinea, Cameroon’s FAP and Nueva Era of Equatorial Guinea. Not regarded as favourites, Stade Malien won all three group games but lost the semi final against ABC who finished second in Group A. The victory earned the Ivorians a spot in the 2023 BAL. With only one spot up for grabs to the BAL from the West Division, Stade Malien knew they had to bring everything to the floor to qualify for their first time in the elite tournament. With ticket to the BAL at stake, Stade Malien went on to defeat Bangui Sporting Club 62-59 to grab the final spot from the West Division. They finished 6-2 in the road to BAL qualifiers. Making BAL playoffs debut Grouped in the Sahara Conference alongside defending champions US Monastir, Rwanda Energy Group (REG), ABC, AS Douanes and Kwara Falcons, Stade Malien had to win more than just a game to pull through despite this being their first appearance at the BAL. They had quite a slow start to the conference though. Their athleticism and aggressiveness at both ends of the court could not earn them a win over defending champions Monastir in their first game. Notwithstanding, they picked themselves up in their next game as they overcame Nigerian champions, Kwara Falcons. A second defeat soon followed, this time it came at the hands of the home side, AS Douanes. Needing a win in their next games to stand a chance of sealing a ticket to the playoffs, Stade Malien produced some of their best performance at the Sahara Conference as they defeated REG and ABC on the final day, a result that club head coach Kaba Kante referred to as “their turn to win” having tasted consecutive defeats at the hands of the Ivorian side lately. Prior to the Sahara Conference, ABC Fighters had defeated the Malians thrice in four months – twice at the BAL qualifiers and at the Orange Invitational tournament – held in Abidjan a week to the BAL tipoff. ”Enough is enough they [ABC] can’t continue to beat us like that,” said Kante. “Thankfully we showed them that it was our turn to win.” That win over ABC by Stade Malien was the biggest defeat inflicted on the Ivorian side in the Sahara Conference. It saw Stade Malien finish with a 3-2 mark and qualify to the playoffs. Winners of Sahara Conference Despite winning three games, Stade Malien was made to wait until the last game between US Monastir and AS Douanes. Four teams – ABC, REG, US Monastir and Stade Malien – had all won three games heading into the last game of the Sahara Conference. At the end of the last game, Stade Malien emerged champions of the Sahara Conference. They topped the tricky ranking after a total point aggregate differentials in the games between five teams with a 3-2 record was used to determine the final standings. Stade Malien had the highest aggregate point differential with 13 followed by AS Douanes on 12, REG and ABC had -4 and the tie was broken by the team with the higher number of points scored in the games between the two teams. This saw the defending champions of the BAL, US Monastir miss out on the playoffs. ‘As a team, we play with our hearts’ Aliou Diarra and Souleymane Berthe formed the core of the team who led the Malian side to the playoffs. The two young players stood out for Stade Malien from the qualifiers to the Sahara Conference and stayed consistent in five games played in Dakar. Berthe, 22, averaged 20.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG while Diarra, 21, registered five double-doubles with an average of 18 points per game (PPG), 13.4RPG and 2.0 BLKPG.“As a team we play with our hearts,” Diarra said “This team started to build its identity when we played the qualifiers in Niger and Abidjan. Togetherness has been our strongest strength.” That togetherness saw Stade Malien make history as debutants. It is left to be seen if they would build on this momentum when the playoffs tip off in Kigali from May 21-27. As Douanes emerge from the Ashes It’s never too easy to lose two straight games to start a competition and bounce back with three wins in a row. But AS Douanes achieved it against all odds. And, with the support of their tireless home fans cheering on, AS Douanes came up with a surprising 76-60 win against champions US Monastir on the last day of the competition. The historic win not only saw AS Douanes finish second in the conference and made it to the BAL playoffs for the second time, but it also ended Monastir’s hopes of defending their title after they finished fifth in the process. How The Sahara Conference Standings were decided There was a five-way tie based on record (3-2) when the Sahara Conference concluded in Dakar on March 21 and only the top four teams which were due to advance to the playoffs was decided based on total point aggregate differentials in the games between the five teams: A - Stade Malien had the largest aggregate point differential (13) B - AS Douanes had the second largest aggregate point differential (12). Rwanda Energy Group and ABC had the same point differential (-4), and the tie was broken by the team with the higher number of points scored in the games between the two teams.