Kwajalein ends Lae streak

Team Kwajalein men’s team ended Team Lae’s seven-year domination of the Ralik Ratak National Championships basketball tournament with a 61-59 victory Saturday. They are pictured along with their women’s team that competed for the first time in Ralik Ratak competition, winning third place in the tourney. Photo: Wilmer Joel.

WILMER JOEL

For the first time since 2013, someone other than Team Lae won the coveted men’s basketball championship in the Ralik Ratak National Championship tournament completed this past Saturday.

The underdog team Kwajalein finally overthrew the seven-year defending champions Lae and ended their winning streak during the Ralik Ratak men’s Championship game at Laura last Saturday. The event was packed with many spectators, vehicles, and 20,000 viewers on the Marshall Islands Basketball Federation Facebook page as they all witnessed an intense showdown between two titans battling it out for the title. The Kwajalein team was led by by head coach Nelson Langkieo and assistant coach Faiga Tagoilelagi, while team Lae was headed by coachNelson Langkieo and assistant coach Joshua Lanki. Refereeing the game were MALGov Sports Division officials Ueki Lanki and Chris Makiphie.

At the start of the first half, team Lae dominated the scoreboard with a 10 point lead despite the absence for the second year in a row of Lae’s star player Lajji Maddison due to Covid border closure.

By halftime, Lae led 33-21. But Kwajalein seemed relaxed despite being down in points. It led the audience to wonder about the Kwajalein first half turnovers that helped spark Lae to its lead.

In the third quarter Kwajalein came roaring back, making an epic comeback by out-scoring Lae 26-12. The third quarter ended with Kwajalein holding a two point lead, 47-45, against a Lae team that appeared stunned by the comeback. The crowd was going absolutely nuts as they honked inside their cars and cheered the rebound by team Kwajalein and the changes in their score.

Kwajalein star players Vender Hax and Aichy Abner, who later was awarded the most valuable player award, were instrumental in helping the team take back the lead. Hax dropped in five three-pointers and Abner scored 24 points. But the game that was now a basket-for-basket exchange between these two champion caliber teams was eerily reminiscent of their meeting in the 2017 Ralik Ratak championship — a duel for the ages that saw Lae defeat the visitors by one point, 76-75.

Kwajalein head coach Langkieo was coaching his team as if he himself was playing in the game — moving about on the sideline and demonstrating with his hands. Meanwhile, long-serving Lae head coach Heine remained in his seat, smoking to ease his tension as he used a different style to try to get his team back on track.

The intensity of the game spiraled in the fourth quarter as both teams tightened their defense and reinforced their offense. Lae tried to take back the lead but Kwajalein held its ground and made sure they didn’t get the chance to do so. In the end Kwajalein defeated Lae, 61-59, marking an end to the reign of Team Lae, which has won every Ralik Ratak championship since 2014, an impressive and unprecedented “seven-peat.”

Monday this week, upon team Kwajalein’s return to Ebeye, the players, coaches and their fans held a parade celebrating their triumph in their hometown in which they were met with warm greetings and great joy.

In one of the closest games in the history of Ralik Ralik basketball women’s competition, Team Lae earned its fifth consecutive championship title last Saturday, defeating Team Majuro by a basket, 64-62. Lae’s five championships in a row is a record for women’s basketball players in the national championship and puts the women’s team on track to challenge the Lae men’s record of seven consecutive championships.

The high-scoring, robust matchup between these two teams at Laura Gym was a nail-bitting affair. This is the second year in a row Majuro and Lae competed for the women’s championship.

Team Majuro was coached by head coach Kalani Kaneko and assistant coach Mo Heine, while Lae’s head coach was Thomas Heine and assistant coach Joshua Lanki. Refereeing this game were Damien Edwin and Jack Zedkaia.

As the game got underway, the rain was falling heavily all around the covered but open sided gym. Lae jumped out to a quick six point lead before Majuro bounced back to end the quarter up by one over Lae, 18-17.

In the second quarter, the teams traded baskets until Majuro exploded to end the half with a nine point lead, 34-25.
The game escalated in the third quarter, simultaneously getting more physical as these players got hit, scratched, and knocked over in order to get the ball from the opposing team. But neither team could get the upper hand in this rough and tumble quarter, ending the third in 50-50 tie.

Blood was boiling and hearts were racing as the blow of the whistle was sounded to begin the last quarter and the pinnacle of the game. Both teams surged their defensive and offensive battling to wrap up the game and take home the title. The entire quarter was a see-saw of lead changes as one team matched the other team’s score.

With the seconds ticking down to the last minute of play, Lae’s Alexy Joseph drove to the basket and scored on a contested layup, a two-pointer that turned out to be the margin of victory as Team Lae held off Majuro in the final seconds. Final score, Lae 64-Majuro 62.
The question is will the Lae women’s team extend its winning streak and outdo the Lae men’s seven-year winning streak?

Majuro star players Hiroko Obeketang and Benia Hanerg were absolutely fabulous offensively and defensively. Obeketang had 10 points and Hanerg had 20 points, while Lae’s Most Value Player Florence Karu had 18 points.

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