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Update: Close defeats for Malta in opening 3×3 qualifiers

Malta's Stephanie De Martino dribbles to the hoop against Azerbaijan. Photo: FIBA 3X3

Malta opened their commitments in the FIBA 3×3 Europe Cup qualifiers with defeats for its men’s and women’s teams on Saturday.

Malta’s men fell to Azerbaijan and Luxembourg in their day’s games, while the women conceded two close defeats against Azerbaijan in overtime and Ireland later on.

With both teams featuring completely changed lineups from those participating at the Games of the Small States of Europe just a few weeks prior, Malta’s squads put forward players who usually play the 5×5 game. For the men’s team, David Bugeja, Nathan Xuereb, and Ian Felice Pace were all part of coach Alan Walls’ GSSE 5×5 squad, Kurt Xuereb joining the trio in Cyprus for these qualifiers. In the women’s team, the squad consisted of Stephanie De Martino, Ashleigh Van Vliet, and Josephine Diaby.

Both teams kickstarted their tournament with an opening fixture against Azerbaijan. The women’s team went closest with an overtime 17-15 defeat at 8.30am. While Azerbaijan’s points were distributed between three of their players, it was De Martino who was the start of the show for Malta with 12 points, eight of which came from behind the two-point line and four other close-range makes.

In fact, it was the Starlites player who opened proceedings with the first two one-pointers of the game. From then on, it was tit-for-tat between the sides leading them to finish regular time at 15-15 after a crunchtime longshot from De Martino.

However, one made and one missed freethrow were the deciding factor after Malta’s seventh foul of the game, as the Azeris took the game by two points.

In their later game, Malta fell 13-12 to Ireland. Diaby was Malta’s leading scorer this time with five points, as Van Vliet and De Martino followed with four and three points respectively. Claire Rockall topped the scoring for Ireland with five points.

Once more, it was De Martino who opened the scoring after an Irish foul. Both sides traded blows before tieing at 8-8. Van Vliet gave Malta the lead from the line with 1.45 to go but Ireland went on a four-point run with two long-distance makes and kept a close lead until the final buzzer.

Woes for men’s team

Malta’s men suffered a 20-14 loss to the Azerbaijan male counterpart in their first outing.

Gzira Athleta’s Nathan Xuereb led Malta’s scoring in their first encounter with five points, while the other three players all finished with three points each. For Azerbaijan, Endar Poladkhanli, a guard who featured for his side in last year’s qualifying success, as well as the FIBA Small Countries championships in Malta, led his team with 11 points. Akbarov Jabrayil followed with six, and Amil Hamzayev scored three.

Foul trouble was Malta’s downfall on Saturday as they gave Azerbaijan the bonus with 3.44 minutes to go, with Poladkhanli already in full flow by then. Malta struggled late on as the Azeris began to widen the gap, making it as tough as 11 points with 2.43 to go. However, fought back to bring it back to six before the final buzzer at the 10-minute mark.

In their second game, they faced a dominant Luxembourg side with the Malta players already with bad memories from facing the same opponents in the 5×5 GSSE final a few weeks before.

Felice Pace and Bugeja both scored three as Kurt Xuereb scored two and Nathan Xuereb added a point to Malta’s tally. Luxembourg’s Scott Matthew Morton led the game with seven points and was the only player to hit a two-pointer throughout the entire game.

Malta continues its commitments on Sunday before determining their standing by end of day ahead of the Europe Cup finals in Israel in September.

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