There is a sense of de javu about KIU Titans’ run in the semi-finals of this year’s National Basketball League play-offs.
Like in 2016, when they led Power in the best-of-five-series after game one of the semi-finals, before falling behind 2-1, the Titans finds themselves in a similar situation today against five-time defending champions City Oilers.
The Titans opened their semi-final account against the Oilers with an 83-61 victory, before losing game two 69-76. Matters worsened on Tuesday night, when Oilers won game three 71-67 in what was a heart-stopping clash.
Tonight, the two sides will be on the brink at the MTN Arena in Lugogo, as they renew acquaintances in game four.
Oilers will need a win to proceed to their sixth successive final, while Titans aim to shrug off the ‘nearly men’ tag, they have carried for so long. Titans were whitewashed 4-0 in last year’s final, and they were hoping, that the lessons from then could be a springboard to success this year.
Samuel Agutu, Titans’ guard told The Observer, that they believe they are a much better side than they were last season.
“And that is something we showed in game one of the semi-final. We stopped everything that Oilers tried to do. It is that intensity we must get again for game four, to win and stay in the competition,” Agutu said.
However, observers believe, that while Titans are a good assembly, who, on their day can obliterate anyone like they did in game one, they are yet to fully harness the consistency needed to be champion. It shows in the tight and critical moments of games.
For example, on Tuesday night, Oilers were out of the blocks quicker, leading the game throughout the three quarters. In fact, one felt that they had gained a lot of momentum, confidence and courage from their game two victory.
Oilers did not look at all like the team that had struggled to get into rhythm in game one, when Titans run them rugged through their piercing and ruthless guards.
Throughout, Oilers were managing proceedings like Floyd Mayweather tamed his opponents without flogging and embarrassing, but out-jabbing and keeping them at bay, to restrict their earning of points. Meanwhile, the clock run down, causing frustration.
Such is probably what the Titans were feeling, especially their key players, Michael Bwanga, Sudi Ulanga and Chris Omanye being restricted on the offence. It is in such situations, that character gives one the will to persist until they fulfill their main objective.
And it showed in the most dramatic of circumstances. With 16.9 seconds left on the clock, the Titans trailed by two points, as the scoreboard read 69-67. But because they had possession, the bigger part of the crowd, which was rooting for them, expected them to level the game, and force at least one five-minutes overtime.
Yet, regardless of which side one was at in the indoor stadium, those last moments had everyone’s heart in their mouth. The Titans also had a chance to execute a three-point shot, and win it outright, 70-69, considering how much work they had done running down the clock, in order to leave Oilers with no chance of a fight back.
In the end, it all backfired. Bwanga, who is one of Titans better shooters and dribblers received the ball during the inbound. And as he tried to dribble, while running down the clock, Oilers star guard Jimmy Enabu dispossessed him, only to run clear and complete a lay-up to make it 71.
Indeed, it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man. Enabu, who is arguably the best player in the league showed not only skill and finesse. But also fight and leadership to inspire his team. Titans’ Omanye told The Observer that although they respect Oilers, they do not fear them.
However, one who saw the Titans playing the second half of game two and much of game three, must have realized how they struggled to execute, as well as they had in game one.
It suggested that they were suffering from a dearth of confidence, much pronounced by the lack of awareness on how to beat Oilers’ defence.
James Okello, Oilers’ centre, who had his lower lip torn twice after game two, because of the physicality in this series said; “We have lived these moments many times before unlike the Titans. So, we are better at handling them. When we were a game down, the coach Mandy Juruni told us we were not fighting enough, hence we allowed Titans a free pass to our hoop. Our attitude had to change, and so have the results.”
Being 2-1 down has certainly created anxiety for the Titans. Their guard Collins Kasujja said that the pressure had now shifted to them.
But he hopes, that come 9pm on Friday night, when game four kicks off, they will be calm, positive and with confidence, that they can knock-out the monster (Titans coach Brian Wathum called Oilers that after last year’s final), because that is what Wathum has insisted missed from his team in game two and three.