“It’s a historic win and we’ve broken the curse,” Senegal coach Cheikh Sarr said. “I’m very proud because we did it. We wanted it and the girls did everything.”
Coming into Sunday, African teams had gone 7-89 in the tournament since first qualifying in 1971. All of those victories had come in the consolation rounds, but never in pool play.
Nigeria almost blew a 17-point lead before holding off Turkey 74-68. This was Nigeria’s second appearance in the World Cup, going 0-5 in 2006.
“To be honest this is huge. This is a huge day for Africa. I’m really proud of Senegal too,” said Nigeria guard Sarah Ogoke, who had 22 points in the win. “To be honest with you. They can’t win and we don’t. It’s a huge day for Africa. Hopefully this will give us a little more respect. I wasn’t surprised they won. ”
Both teams have benefited from having players that went to U.S. colleges on them. Senegal guard Yacine Diop is a graduate transfer at Louisville this season. Nigeria had former Arizona State player Promise Amukamara and Evelyn Akhator, who played at Kentucky.
The victory was Senegal’s sixth in its World Cup history and set off a wild celebration after the game with the team’s fans waving flags and dancing .
“For us, it was like a final. We deserved it because the whole team wanted to win and they (Latvia) wanted it too,” Senegal star Astou Traore said. “It’s the first time we beat a European team and it’s a dream. It was a real objective to win one game and to advance. But we’re not going to stop here — we’re going to continue working.”
Senegal has one game left in the preliminary round, facing China on Tuesday. A win would give Senegal the two-seed in the pool.
“In 2006 we beat Nigeria in a classification game. This one (against Latvia) was an important one as the team that won was likely to move on,” said Senegal’s Astou Traore.
Senegal’s win came a day after the team played the U.S. tough, losing by only 20 points. While that margin may seem big, it was the closest the team had come against the No. 1 team in the world.
“This game will give us confidence,” Sarr said after the U.S. game.
Nigeria coach Otis Hughley Jr. was hired as the coach of the team in August after stints with the Sacramento Kings and Chinese Taipei. The native New Yorker admitted after the win, he couldn’t process immediately how big the victory was for his players.
“I will let it soak in and when I learn a little more of the history I’ll be able to appreciate it even more,” he said. “I can’t even try to understand it. It truly is unbelievable.”
The team took a photo in front of the scoreboard after the game and celebrated the victory running through the media mix zone chanting “What do we eat for Thanksgiving dinner? Turkey!”
Both teams have a strong chance to win their final preliminary games and finish second in their pools. Senegal plays China while Nigeria plays winless Argentina.
“We’re not done yet,” Amukamara said.