BAMAKO (2016 FIBA Africa U18 Championship) - Buoyed with a victory over a major rival at a major competition, Mali enter the 2016 FIBA Africa U18 Championship with the goal of finally returning to the final.
Mali have made advances in youth basketball in Africa, reaching the Semi-Finals of the last three FIBA Africa U18 Championships. But their last final came in South Africa in 2006 - when Mali lost to Nigeria but qualified for the FIBA U19 World Championship for the first and only time.
"I'm not really sure how to feel about the history, but we are ready and we think this year that we can qualify for the final," said the 17-year-old Keita, who played for Mali at the 2016 FIBA U17 World Championship. "So I think we can reach the U19 Worlds."
Their only U19 Worlds appearance was in 2007, when Mali finished 15th by beating Puerto Rico for their only victory in Novi Sad, Serbia.
"I would really like to play at the U19 Worlds. I am ready to put in a bigger effort and really play a great World Championship," said Keita, who averaged 8.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks in Zaragoza.
And Kaba Kante's U18 Mali team will have a boost of motivation when the players from the 2016 FIBA U17 World Championship join the U18 team.
Mali not only beat Argentina for their first victory in their first U17 Worlds but they finished their tournament on a high note by blasting Egypt 61-38 in the Classification 15-16 game.
That was a bit of revenge after Egypt beat Mali in the previous summer’s FIBA Africa U16 final in the Malian capital city of Bamako in the waning seconds.
"We were really ready for this game and we were preparing for it for a long time," Keita admitted after the game in Zaragoza.
"I am really excited that we were able to win two games. It really means a lot."
Beating their African rivals could be a major factor for Mali's confidence after they lost to Egypt in the 2014 FIBA Africa U18 Championship Semi-Finals despite leading by as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter and by 10 points with less than 2 minutes left.
The 2017 FIBA U19 World Championship will be the first youth FIBA global championship to take place on the African continent, something to which Kante is looking forward.
"I am happy that it’s in Africa. But in the long term, we just want to win the games and get to the worlds," Kante said.
The win in Zaragoza could play a major role in Mali's chances in Kigali.