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2023’s Local sporting achievements (2): Starlites dominate local basketball as Malta U-18s win FIBA Games

Starlites' players celebrate with the 2023 league trophy. Photo: Stephen Christopher Vella

Winning the title is every sports club’s ambition, but finishing the season with the league championship trophy for both the men’s and women’s teams is an achievement worthy of a spot in such a series. Even greater than local success for a few of these players was coming home champions of the FIBA women’s Under-18 Division C. Kurt Aquilina looks back on the sporting achievements during the past year…

Coming off a successful title-winning season as basketball saw its return from COVID-19, in which coach Paul Ferrante’s men’s team had beaten an up-and-coming Mellieha Libertas team with a clean sweep, the challenge to stay consistent was their mission, particularly for the group of young players, some of whom still playing in the youth leagues. Maltese Australian guard Matt Attard and American forward Darius George joined the team over the summer while fellow US forward Jacob Bates returned to join the team with Zekiah Owens in the winter.

As for the club’s women’s team, coach Charlie Bonnici had taken over the squad over the summer as they pushed to overcome a dominant Caffe Moak Luxol who had celebrated winning the championship honours the previous season. With the signing of just one import player – the return of American forward Amelia Simmons – it would take a great team effort to achieve their goal.

The season proved to be a test of wit but throughout the campaign, the two Starlites clans hauled in six trophies, with the men’s team winning all but the Louis Borg Cup and the women winning the league and the MBA Shield. This was a feat Ferrante had credited to the club’s organisation.

Starlites’ women’s team players celebrate with the 2023 league trophy. Photo: Stephen Christopher Vella

“Huge credit is due to the Starlites organisation in having such a strong nursery producing great local talent, and then to being able to find the right pieces to add to the already-stacked team. We were a team with weapons right through the roster, and everyone on the team knew exactly what they brought to the table,” he said after winning the league title back in May.

Back-to-back victories were already an honour to be proud of, but the fact that Starlites beat Mellieha in a second consecutive clean sweep in the 2023 finals, despite a stacked Libertas roster, highlighted the Naxxar side’s strength.

Meanwhile, in the women’s league, the prowess of Malta international Steffi De Martino – with performances which eventually earned her the Malta Basketball Association (MBA)’s Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) award on the day, and the women’s Player of the Year award in November together with men’s team captain Alec Felice Pace, made the difference against a tough Luxol side boasting the likes of Josephine Diaby and Mexican import Gladiana Avila who had had up an impressive season as the Naxxar side became the new title holders.

Malta U-18 Gold

Three months later, after the excitement of the Games of the Small States of Europe (GSSE), FIBA’s annual summer competitions ensued and with Malta’s senior teams having already played their part, the Under-16s and Under-18s headed overseas to represent their country.

Led by Giovanni Gebbia, Malta’s U-18 women’s team was the one to become the highlight of the summer for the local basketball community as a majestic tournament performance from Danika Galea, originally a Depiro player currently playing in Rome with Elite Basket Roma, saw her take home the tournament’s MVP award after having finished each game with a double-double, as well as the gold medal together with the rest of the squad.

Malta’s Under-18s women’s team celebrates with the FIBA Division C trophy. Photo: FIBA

The roster, composed of Malta’s future stars in the women’s game, saw players coming mostly from the two title-contenders in the local senior league, and coach Gebbia made the most out of this to lead an unbeaten side to the top spot at the end of the tournament.

The determination was present immediately in the first matchup against Andorra when Malta won 86-69 on opening day, but Malta went on to beat Cyprus, Armenia, and eventually produced a stunning comeback to beat hosts Albania 56-47 in the final.

This well-deserved victory was the perfect summer’s ending for the local community after a GSSE silver medal had been the country’s best result of the year. Gebbia’s squad was eventually met with cheers at the Malta International Airport as ecstatic supporters welcomed back their champions.

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