Lebanon defense holds own vs Jordan Clarkson, Gilas
MANILA, Philippines — It took a while for Lebanon head coach Jad El Hajj to figure out how to slow down Jordan Clarkson.
Fortunately for them, his players Karim Zeinoun and Ali Mansour stepped up in time to defend the NBA star and Wael Arakji put on the finishing touches to protect their home turf from Gilas Pilipinas in the Fiba World Cup 2023 Asian Qualifiers.
“We suffered at the beginning. It took us 10 to 15 minutes to understand what kind of game Jordan plays, he scored 18 first-half points,” said El Hajj after edging out the Philippines, 85-81, on Friday (Manila time) at Nouhad Nawfal Sports Complex.
But with Lebanese defenders Karim Zeinoun and Ali Mansour taking turns in stopping Clarkson, especially down the stretch, the home team overcame the 27-point explosion of the debuting Utah Jazz guard.
“Even if Jordan scored (27), that doesn’t take away the fact that he played pretty well. He did an amazing job, many times he didn’t let him receive the ball, and this is amazing,” said El Hajj, who steered the team to a runner-up finish in the Fiba Asia Cup 2022 last month. “Ali is always ready. I know Ali many years ago. Ali is one of the best defenders and he gave his heart. He gave always his heart on the court, especially when he’s in front of the full house.”
He lauded Zeinoun after filling the void left by Sergio El Darwich.
“Honestly we prepared before with Karim Zeinoun. Even if Sergio is playing, you know that Sergio could not play 40 minutes and he cannot defend Clarkson for 40 minutes. So we prepared them before playing short minutes and Karim stepped up to the plate,” El Hajj. “I think Karim played like 25 minutes which is great. He gave his best, he used his fouls. Karim, as we all know, is a great defender, and one more time, he proved this.”
Besides their defense that forced Gilas 21 turnovers, the Lebanese leaned on the heroics of Wael Arakji, who showed authority in protecting their home turf against Clarkson and the Filipinos.
“To be honest, the Philippines, they got their top 12 players in the league in the Philippines. Maybe they’re missing one or two, but we beat them,” said Arakji, who poured in 24 points.
“When you’re in my town, you go by my rules. So when you’re in Lebanon, you go by our rules and this is what we did today,” he added.
The Fiba Asia Cup MVP put the game to bed with the game-clinching triple, 83-78, with 18 seconds to go, then hit the “Night, Night” celebration.
Lebanon has been proving itself as a top Asian team since its amazing run in the Fiba Asia Cup and winning four of its five matches in the World Cup 2023 qualifiers.
“We’re beating national teams that have a triple, quadruple budget than ours,” Arakji said. “So most of the players we’re playing against are playing in top leagues in the world. So they need to figure out a good plan for the players.”
Arakji pitched to Hagop Khajirian, FIBA executive director for Asia and CEO of the FIBA Asia Secretariat, to give more opportunities for Middle Eastern talents to play globally in Australia’s National Basketball League, Japan B.League, and Korean Basketball League (KBL).
“And I believe that Mr. Hagop Khajirian who’s always doing a great job, I believe every country in Asia is supposed to have two Asian spots for the whole continent,” Arakji said. “So players in Lebanon and Jordan and in Syria can have the chance to go and play the same way that the Far East are having their own rule where Asian players are allowed to go and play in Australia and Korea and Japan as Asians.”
“The players are doing the impossible to raise Lebanon’s flag back again to the top. We’re exhausted… We’re killing ourselves for our country, so I believe we deserve much more respect, and much more appreciation from whoever is responsible,” he added.