This story begins with an unlikely outside shot.
In the closing seconds of the Division B Finals of the 2017 FIBA Women's Asia Cup, India's do-it-all forward Shireen Limaye took matters in her own hands. The game against Kazakhstan was tied at 73-all in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter. Limaye dribbled the ball up the court, kept dribbling from one side of the three-point arc to the other, listening to the home fans in Bengaluru chant the last few seconds of the game - "Five… four… three… two…"- and on the final beat, took a step-back two-pointer. The buzzer rang. Time over.
Limaye had hit the buzzer-beating game-winner, giving India a euphoric 75-73 win, sending the home town into ruptures, and ensuring that the home side had won the Division B title.
Most importantly, however, the win ensured that India would be promoted up to the higher level of Asian basketball competition-Level A-against the toughest teams in the continent. After being demoted to Division B in 2017, it was an important step back into the big leagues.
Two years later, the best teams in the continent return to Bengaluru for the 2019 FIBA Asia Women's Cup, set to be held from September 24-29. The Karnataka capital has become a capital of sorts for all of Asian women's basketball, with several important Senior, U16, and U18 FIBA Asia events being held in the city's Sree Kanteerava Stadium. For Limaye and Team India, it will be a return to the arena where they enjoyed their recent triumph.
But nostalgia for the Indian eves will need to be short-lived. A daunting task beckons for India ahead against past and present Asian champions and opponents that feature several world-class ballers. Division B will seem like a cakewalk in comparison; India will transform from the overlords of their group to the heavy underdogs.
MORE: All you need to know about the FIBA Women's Asia Cup 2019
Continuing his journey with Indian basketball since 2017, the Serbian coach Zoran Visic will once again be leading India into the event. Visic has enjoyed success for India in Division B in several events in the past two years, but his tactical prowess will face its biggest challenge yet this week.
India announced their 12-woman roster on the eve of tip-off, a mixture of in-prime players and up-and-coming talents, featuring several players who have been part of the system for the past few years, experienced in tournaments like the 2017 Division B triumph and last year's Commonwealth Games in Australia.
India's roster for the 2019 FIBA Women's Asia Cup: Rajapriyadarshini Rajaganapathi (captain), Anmolpreet Kaur, Shireen Limaye, Barkha Sonkar, Navaneetha Pattemane Udayakumar, Anjana Prasannan Geetha, Stephy Nixon, Bhandavya Hemmige Mahesha, Shruthi Arvind, Madhu Kumari, Jeena Skaria, and Lopamudra Thimmaiah Kokkalera.
👀 Check out some of the cool #BTS 📸 from #FIBAAsiaCupWomen photo session (Pt.1) pic.twitter.com/q82tmlAuhr- FIBA (@FIBA) September 23, 2019
Ever since her senior team breakthrough in 2013, Rajaganapathi has been a fixture in the team, and will be rewarded with the captaincy to begin the tournament. The 6'2" center was a starter two years ago and will be counted on to play an important role this time around, too. Another player to keep an eye on is Jeena Skaria, the Kerala-born baller who has been arguably India's best player in recent years and this year became only the third Indian woman to play pro basketball overseas (for the Ringwood Hawks in Australia). 2017's hero Limaye returns for this team, as do other returning players like Anjana, Sonkar, Kaur, Navaneetha, and Mahesha.
Glaring from the roster list are a couple of notable absences. Two of India's most experienced players from the 2017 team-Anitha Pauldurai and Raspreet Sidhu-won't be a part of this team. It's been a long time since India has played in a major tournament without the services of both of these players, and it will be up to the new leaders to provide the team's anchor.
India has been drawn into Group A of Division A, featuring Japan, Korea, and Chinese Taipei. Immediately, they'll be baptised by fire, as they face off against Asia's reigning champs Japan in their first game of the tournament. The seemingly-unstoppable Japanese are in quest of their fourth consecutive title at the event. India will then play last year's semi-finalists Korea and another strong team from Chinese Taipei.
🤑😍some more #BTS 📸 @BasketballAus @officiasbp@JAPANBASKETBALL @BFI_basketball pic.twitter.com/7cWx1q0iYf- FIBA (@FIBA) September 23, 2019
India's mission will be as much to put up a respectable outing as it will be to ensure that they continue to be the top division. It is already being predicted that the crucial playoff game for India will come down against the Philippines, the weakest team in Group B. The loser of this game will be replaced by the winner of Division B in the next iteration of this tournament-and all eyes for Team India will be focused on ensuring a victory here.
The current Indian team is definitely going through a transition phase, with the elder bastion of Pauldurai, Sidhu, and the recently-unretired legend Geethu Anna Rahul not included in the camp. The way forward could provide the current crop of top players with some interesting competition: over the past few years, a number of Indian teenagers have performed well at the NBA Academy programmes and earned scholarships to take their talents as student-athletes to North America. The list includes Sanjana Ramesh, Vaishnavi Yadav, Srishti Suren, and Khushi Dongre.
While there's a lot of attention given to India's male prospects and the hope of an Indian making it to the NBA one day, it might be more likely that one of these young women makes it first to the WNBA, or sets the platform for their successors to make it. A move like that would definitely boost the popularity of the sport in India and encourage many more youngsters to take up the game.
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What will also help is, if India can launch their long-promised women's pro league, which would provide professional opportunities and more incentive for those hoping to make a career in basketball.
The hype of hosting a tournament like the FIBA Women's Asia Cup will help, too. And a big win or two might shoot India forward, just like Limaye's shot did two years ago. Any success in the group stage or further on in this tournament will be nothing short of a miracle. But just like the 2017 tournament, we could all again wish for an unlikely outside shot.