Are the Steppen Wolves the best team in Asia no one is talking about?
That team isn't Jordan or Iran, both of which played in the World Cup in 2019. It also isn't Jordan, another Asia basketball powerhouse that has played 4 games in the Qualifiers so far.
No, that undefeated team is Kazakhstan who spent the entire Window 2 making history and proving themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
How it started
The game had ended and Kazakhstan were gathered in a circle at halfcourt. They began jumping and up and down in cheers. The hype was led by Anthony Clemmons who stood and roared in the middle.
It would have been easy to mistake the scene as the home court of Kazakhstan, but this was in fact approximately 1,500 kilometers away from Nur Sultan. Instead, Kazakhstan were celebrating this win in Tehran, a place where few have been able to claim a victory.
Beating Iran anywhere is not easy to do, as Kazakhstan know. They tried to beat Iran nearly 4 years ago to the date (February 22, 2018) in the World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers and failed, losing by 21 points on their own home court.
It's even tougher it is to win in Tehran against Iran. Again, in that same Asian Qualifiers cycle, Kazkakhstan tried and failed, suffering a 32-point loss.
Iran vs Kazakhstan, FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers
Even in this game itself, the chances for Kazakhstan did not look good. Iran held their biggest lead of the game of 13 points with a little over a minute to go in the third quarter and it didn't seem as if they were going to slow down.
Except Iran did slow down.
Kazakhstan put the clamps on defensively, kept on making big shots, and suddenly found themselves up ahead after a 15-0 run that spanned through half of the final quarter. A few more solid defensive and offensive plays later and Kazakhstan were celebrating a historic 73-69 win.
Clemmons was one of the main catalysts that sparked this Kazakhstan win, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has been watching him for the past couple of years. The 27-year-old played all 40 minutes in his first appearance in the Qualifiers this year and scored 17 points on 5 three-pointers to go with 4 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals.
While he drilled in a few clutch shots down the stretch, he was quick to deflect taking sole credit for the victory.
"I believe [it was] execution down the stretch [that factored into the win]," Clemmons said. "As big as my shot was, Rustam [Murzagaliyev] control the game during our run. Nikolay [Bazhin] made big shot after big shot. Oleg [Balashov] made two huge free throws to seal the game."
"So this was a great win for our team and the country."
For Clemmons to mention Bazhin making big shot after big shot might have been an understatement. It certainly felt more like big shot after big shot… after big shot… after big shot… and so on. The 31-year-old started the game by making only 1 of his first 7 shots. He finished by making 6 of his last 8 shots with 5 of them being three-pointers.
He finished with 23 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in what might be his best game ever as a part of the Steppen Wolves. His performance, both in this game and throughout the entire Qualifiers so far, is a reflection of how much Kazakhstan has improved.
The win here against Iran in Iran, is already very impressive by itself, but it's only the icing on the cake of the body of work that Kazakhstan has built up in the recent years.
It is now the end of Window 2 for Kazakhstan after their 95-48 beating over Bahrain. It's been their biggest win so far in the Asian Qualifiers and also their 4th in their campaign this cycle. This already matches their win total in the World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers, even through they have 2 more games in Window 3 and the entire Second Round left to play.
While they might not have gotten as much fanfare and recognition, the Steppen Wolves have gradually become one of the top teams in Asia.
They competed down to the wire against Jordan in both games during the Asia Cup Qualifiers. The handled Syria in a tough away win in Window 1. They beat Iran in Iran to start Window 2.
To close off their masterful run so far in the Qualifiers, Kazakhstan blasted through Bahrain by knocking down 17 three-pointers - most in an Asian Qualifiers game so far - on only 32 attempts (53.1 percent).
The icing on the cake was the 27 assists dished out by the team, with 8 players getting at least one dime.
"My team today played very well," said coach Darko Russo. "We had 27 assists, and when you are coach of a team who has 27 assists, you must be proud."
Kazakhstan had started to gather at center court once again after the win against Bahrain, just as they had celebrated their win over Iran. They had barely begun the celebration before coach Russo walked over and gave them what seemed like a signal to quickly wrap things up.
"This is our job," said coach Russo. "We will try to finish our group in first place. We have two more games in Kazakhstan and we’ll do our best to win both games."
It seems like coach Russo and Kazakhstan just won't stop until they are widely recognized as one of the best teams in Asia.
Are you ready to hop onto the bandwagon yet?
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