Following a victory in the Kearsney Stayers’ Tournament at the end of 2019 and, more recently, a win in the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament, the most prestigious event in the sport in South Africa, Michaelhouse basketball is on all-time high. The team is widely regarded as the best in the country, so KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan recently visited Balgowan to find out more about the side.

Chatting to the 1st team coach, Nkanyiso Ngcobo, who began his stint in charge of the team in late 2015, it became clear that the basketball team’s success was because of the buy-in and support of the entire school into and for the sport.

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“I think it is probably the working relationship that we have with the Sports Department as a whole, the strength and conditioning side of it, in terms of the fitness of the boys, as well as the relationship, probably most importantly, that we have with the rugby club,” he said.

“We support each other. We realise that basketball and rugby go hand-in-hand, so the more support that is given to basketball for basketball to flourish, there is also a knock-on effect for rugby and it does well.”

In some schools, the competition between sporting codes and coaches can be quite toxic, so it’s a very important point made by Ngcobo.

Reflecting on his charges recent annexing of the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament title, he said: “It is the title you want to win. It’s the first time that we have won it. In fact, we also won the Stayers’ Tournament for the first time at the end of the last year.”

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Point guard Banele Sithole drives up court in the final of the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo: https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

But this was no team of one-year wonders. It had been built up and honed over time: “It has actually been five years in the works. We have been trying to build our club from the ground up. We have structures in place for coaches and the development of coaches, and the support that we have from not only the club management, in terms of the master in charge, but also from other staff members, has been fantastic.”

Something else that has also helped Michaelhouse is the fact that it is a boarding school. Ngcobo explained: “The boys have really found a passion in basketball. It’s also part of their social life. It isn’t only about sport. You will find them playing basketball in their free time.

“For us, it was just about tapping into that love of basketball and making sure that the foundation and skills were there.”

Turning to how Michaelhouse approaches the game, he added: “Right now our style of basketball is structured. We try and play within the systems. We try to apply a lot of basketball IQ to everything we do. Even when we practice, we look at situational practices. In terms of skills, in terms of running, in terms of fast breaks, guys inherently have that. But it is about awareness and recognising what the game is giving you.

“We allow players to express themselves. We’re not limiting guys and turning them into robots. But at the same time, all the guys play within a structure.”

It’s at that point in the conversation that we’re joined by the back court duo of Jason Makhele, the shooting guard, and Banele Sithole, the point guard and co-vice-captain. Captain JC Oelofse and fellow vice-captain Kwanele Khumalo are unavailable because they’re on a basketball camp in the United States!

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Jason said that although he became a member of the side later than some others, it is their togetherness that has made them a formidable force.

“I think this is one of the only teams that no matter what grade you are in, we all come together as a team. I came into this group in grade 11, and it is my first time playing with them. Most of them have been playing together for four years, but I still feel part of the team.

“It’s not just a first team, it’s like a family.” (Photo: https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

“We’ve worked out handshakes and nicknames, so it is a very special thing to come into a first team and then feel like it’s not just a first team, it’s like a family.”

“Our pre-game warm-ups and rituals are pretty exciting, because everyone has their specific role, which we do every time.”

“The atmosphere at our games at Michaelhouse is incredible because we have the whole school supporting us.”

That’s when Coach Ngcobo chipped in, revealing a downside to the tremendous support the team has: “They enjoy the atmosphere, I don’t particularly. After every game, I lose my voice because I have to shout so loudly so they can hear me on the court.”

“The drums are right behind me, the band is right behind me, the boys are screaming behind me, and these guys just can’t hear a word I am saying.

“It’s a nice problem to have because it does a lot for the team spirit. It brings a lot of energy to the game, but I am constantly trying to out-shout the supporters.”

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The other thing about being a team – and it’s more important in basketball than in many other sports – is having a bench that is able to contribute. It is not just about the starting five.

“We have had several conversations as a team in which we have tried to identify each person’s role, what they think it is and what I think it is,” coach Ngcobo said. “One thing that we always stress is when you are coming on make sure that we keep the momentum going. If the team is slacking, make sure you pick the energy up.

“What I value about this team is that everyone is always ready to step on the court and do what they can. If they don’t step on the court, they are always ready to do what they can from the bench. That’s very important in basketball, having what we call the sixth man.”

All season long, especially after winning the Stayers’ Tournament at Kearsney in the fourth term of 2019, the ultimate goal for the Michaelhouse team had been to win the Saint John’s Tournament title.

“After Kearsney, we realised this wasn’t just a pipe dream. We could go the whole way,” Banele said.

Point guard Banele Sithole with the Saint John’s Tournament Trophy, coach Nkanyiso Ngcobo, and shooting guard Jason Makhele with the Stayers’ Tournament Trophy. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)

But it started with a bit of a damp squib for the side when Enjabulweni School failed to arrive on time for the opening game. That meant, after the forfeit points, the clash with Cape Town’s Wynberg Boys’ High would be the first time the ‘House boys stepped on court in Johannesburg.

Were they nervous? “I think the nerves come from me, really” Ngcobo admitted. “These guys just go out there and play. I’m the one behind the scenes, stressing and trying to put together a strategy, and scouting. Even if I can’t go to a game, I will ask someone to check out the side for me, see what style they’re playing, what size they have. We knew nothing about Wynberg, but I did get some information from other coaches.”

He needn’t have worried too much. Michaelhouse dominated and ran away to a convincing 39-11 victory.

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Next up was Saint Alban’s College, a school with a proven basketball pedigree. Michaelhouse won 26-20, but it was probably a more convincing victory than the score might suggest.

“Sometimes a score doesn’t necessarily illustrate the level of comfort, and I think Saint Alban’s was actually a comfortable victory for us. They didn’t have much size and they had one or two shooters. Because of that we were able to neutralise them with our defence,” Ncgobo said.

That brings us to the Michaelhouse defence, upon which the team’s game is built. ‘House is blessed with a huge building block in centre Simi Femi-Kayode. At 2.05 metres tall (a tiny fraction under six-foot-nine), he is an immense presence around the basket.

Smiling, Ngcobo said: “That’s a big advantage. He’s pretty much the biggest basketball player in the country. Defensively, he is an absolute marvel. He takes care of our paint.

“Basically, to beat us, you have to get us in foul trouble or you have to shoot well.” With limited options, that severely cuts down teams’ chances of beating Michaelhouse.

They shall not pass! Michaelhouse centre Simi Femi-Kayode is a big problem, literally and figuratively, for other teams around the boards. (Photo: https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

Saint John’s College were next on the schedule for Michaelhouse and the hosts were primed to take on the boys from Balgowan.

Jason commented: “We played Saint John’s earlier in the season [going back to the end of 2019] and it was an easy win. Going to them, it was wow!

“I didn’t expect them to come out like that. I knew they would have the home crowd behind them, but I didn’t expect them to play so hard. It was surprising.”

It was a big surprise for Michaelhouse and when the final whistle went they had fallen 26-29.

That meant the side’s final pool game, against Clifton, would determine who finished second in the group. ‘House played with a heavy rotation and some experimentation, but they soon established a comfortable lead. Clifton, though, were far from done, with their KZN under-19 star, Jacques Mahanga, leading a furious fightback. Sensing the danger, coach Ngcobo sent out his starting five once more and they secured a hard-fought 37-35 win.

In the last 16, Michaelhouse were drawn against Waterford Kamhlaba. While a final score of 34-21 was comfortable, the Swazi side presented a tough challenge. “They were a lot fitter than most of the South African teams,” Jason reckoned. “Though they lacked size, they made up for it in fitness. They made us work hard.”

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That victory meant Michaelhouse’s quarter-final opponents were Saint Charles, a team they knew well and a team they respected. “That was probably our game of the tournament. When we play Saint Charles, we are always concerned. Geographically, they are our neighbours, so they are our rivals,” Ngcobo said.

“It was a tough draw for both schools, but we seem to always get each other. We played them in the semi-finals at Kearsney as well, and we play each other twice, once in the fourth term and once in the first term. It’s always a close game.

“The coach there, Darren Holcomb, was my coach when I was in school. So there are similarities in our basketball style. They share a similar philosophy.”

On the court, Michaelhouse roared into a 12-0 lead against their Pietermariztburg rivals and it looked as if they would record a routine win, but Saint Charles had other ideas and clawed their way back in to the contest. When it ended, House had edged it 28-27.

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The semi-final showdown with Saint David’s Marist Inanda proved to be a less nerve-wracking experience. Michaelhouse’s defence shut down the Johannesburg side’s offence, allowing only 17 points, enabling JC Oelofse and his team to record a six-point victory.

“We generally were defensive-minded [throughout the tournament], despite the fact that we do have some individual scorers who can be breath-taking. We do try to win our game with our defence,” coach Ngcobo commented.

Through to the final, Michaelhouse found themselves up against Saint John’s College once more. Strangely, their loss to the Johannesburgers in the pool game proved to be, if there is such a thing, a good loss.

Coach Ngcobo explained: ” One of the key reasons why they beat us in the first game was that in the fourth term last year they came down to Michaelhouse and I believe they studied us very well. This was after we won the Kearsney Stayers’ Tournament. We were already a target. Their coach did a lot of research and he planned brilliantly for us.

“The downfall of that is that they had already played us once in the tournament. We were now in a position to know what they were going to do. Once we figured out their system, we neutralised it. We also frustrated them because I don’t think they had a Plan B. Our defence was the key.”

Michaelhouse point guard and co-vice-captain Banele Sithole attempts a steal in the final against Saint John’s. (Photo: https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

The title-decider, though, didn’t start well for Michaelhouse, with Saint John’s surging into an early lead.

“We didn’t start off as well as we had hoped to, but there were some contributing factors,” Banele said. “We didn’t really get to do our warm-up and we started off poorly. But then we started catching up and we built up momentum.”

Saint John’s presented a very physical, aggressive and energetic challenge, but Michaelhouse was up for the game.

They soaked up the early onslaught and slowly upped the pressure. The tide turned and the lead changed. The game finished 48-40 in Michaelhouse’s favour.

The quest to be the best ended in triumph: Michaelhouse, the 2020 Saint John’s Basketball Tournament champions. (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/michaelhouse.org/)

For Banele, it was almost a case of déjà vu: “It was like, this is where we belong. For me, it was like a flashback to the Stayers’ Tournament at Kearsney. We lost to Kearsney in the group stages, then played them in the final and beat them. At Saint John’s, we played them in the group stages, lost, and then beat them in the final.”

Jason, with excitement in his voice, said: “For me, the realisation that we were actually number one in the country made me feel as if this was what I was meant to do. We had accomplished our goal. We didn’t come to the tournament for second or third place.

“We knew we were the best and we had to show the whole of South Africa that we were the best.

“I told myself afterwards that it is not going to be the last time. It has to be repeated.”

The history of sport at Clifton College is remarkable, especially when one considers that the school is only 18 years of age. Most of its sport is played at an elite level, like cricket, waterpolo, tennis and hockey. But basketball? With their performances at the prestigious Saint John’s Basketball Festival this past weekend, Clifton’s basketball players proved they can, no doubt, compete at an elite level, writes KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan.

The team, led by their inspirational captain Jacques Mahanga, put together a string of eye-catching performances in the toughest pool of the event. They opened with a 32-29 victory over Saint Alban’s College, an established power in the game, showing character to score a late equaliser to force overtime before earning a sweet victory in the extra period.

Clifton’s pool, the toughest of the lot, included the hosts, Saint John’s College. (Photo: Saint John’s basketball, https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

They downed a much-improved Enjabulweni School 25-13 in their second outing and followed that up with a 28-23 win over Cape Town’s Wynberg Boys High, a team that hadn’t encountered before.

What made Clifton’s pool the toughest of all, though, was their next two opponents, Saint John’s College and Michaelhouse, the sides who ended up battling it out in the final for the title.

In a very physical contest, they went down 24-36 to Saint John’s before coming out on the wrong side of a very tightly-contested game against the eventual champions, Michaelhouse, by a slim 35-37 margin.

That final outing against a side that won the Stayers Tournament at Kearsney College and now the Saint John’s title, was a great advertisement for the game, said Master in Charge of Basketball at Clifton, Peter Farquharson.

Clifton defeated Wynberg Boys High, an unfamiliar foe, at the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo: Saint John’s Basketball https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

“What I really liked about that game was it was a game played in a beautiful spirit. The boys all know each other, they’ve played against each other, they’re friends with each other and on the court it was a great game of basketball.”

“The concept of mutual respect in a game like basketball is definitely there. The Clifton and Michaelhouse boys have also played in teams together, so those relationships are established. While it was competitive, it was played in the right spirit.”

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As for the result, Clifton’s captain Jacques Mahanga wasn’t surprised that he and his team-mates had pushed a team that is arguably the best in the country all the way.

“We left our hearts on the court. We fought very hard. We weren’t shocked. We were all in the right head space. We all wanted to win, we wanted to beat Michaelhouse. We’ve had enough of Michaelhouse,” he laughed. “We saw an opportunity to beat them, but we were a little unlucky to go down by two.”

Clifton even had two opportunities to win the clash with buzzer beaters, but those shots didn’t fall. Nonetheless, the game showed Clifton belongs among the elite, and their other performances in the pool games backed that up.

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With only five league fixtures taking place outside of tournaments during the first term, the Saint John’s Tournament was an opportunity to grow for the Durban school and, said their skipper, he believes they did.

“We certainly grew from the first game to the last. Funnily enough, in our first game against Saint Alban’s, we wouldn’t have won the game if one of our juniors did not score the last basket to send the game into overtime. The juniors helped us win. It was an opportunity for the seniors to praise the juniors for their role in the team.”

He added: “We didn’t have to tell other teams how good we have become. Our performances spoke for us. We performed better than we had against other KZN schools earlier in the season. Kearsney, for example, beat us in the season. They have always finished higher than us, but they didn’t make it past the group stages.”

Photographed outside Founder’s House at Clifton College, first team basketball captain Jacques Mahanga and Master in Charge of Basketball Peter Farquharson (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)

Mahanga, who has KZN under-19 colours in the sport, is the heart and soul of the Clifton basketball team, Peter Farquharson said: “He’s very humble. In any game, he is, by far, our top points’ scorer. But he has certainly worked hard on playing a team structure and adding to the strengths of our team. Teams change from year to year, and we have had to adapt things at times, but he has definitely been a strong team player.

“Jacques works hard, he trains hard, and he is disciplined. He has been a good leader. He’s worked closely with some of the juniors, which is really good to see.”

Mahanga’s leadership is plain to see in the manner in which he carries himself. He is confident, but respectful, open, honest, and a smile comes easily to his face.

He plays either point guard or shooting guard and his NBA heroes reflect the qualities he admires and strives to emulate: Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, the best shooter in the game; the recently-deceased Kobe Bryant, known for his fighter’s mentality; and Le Bron James, the do-everything Los Angeles Lakers superstar who, like Jacques, rose from humble beginnings, which the Clifton skipper likens to his own story.

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He attended Addington Primary School, not a traditional feeder school for Clifton, but Jacques was the recipient of the Gail Teunissen Legacy Scholarship, given annually to a boy from Addington, who is the best all-round learner.

“I was lucky to get that,” he said. “I was competing with three other candidates and they were all very good.”

When he arrived at Clifton in grade eight, he had a slight edge over many of the other boys in that he had started playing basketball at Addington. It wasn’t so much about the sport as it was about friendship, he explained at Founders House on the Clifton campus on Tuesday.

“What really pushed me to play basketball was the fact that I saw all my friends playing basketball. We all played soccer and then they left to play basketball and I was the only one left playing soccer, so I decided to move to basketball too.”

Disarmingly candid, he described himself as being “very cocky” when he moved to Clifton. He wanted to play first team basketball in grade eight and by the fourth term he had achieved that goal.

This past season, Jacques was the senior player in the team, along with only four other matric boys, and that meant he played the role of mentor to some of the younger boys, in a reversal of the roles from when he first represented the Clifton first team.

Clifton’s 28-23 victory against Wynberg Boys High gave them three wins on the trot in the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament pool stage. (Photo: Saint John’s Basketball https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

When basketball was introduced at the school there was only one team per age group and games were played in the school hall. As its popularity began to grow two external courts were added. Recently three brand new courts were put up at the Riverside Sports Club, where so much of the school’s sport is played, bringing to five the number of courts it boasts and reflecting the growing popularity of the sport. That growth is happening in other schools, too, said Peter Farquharson.

Farquharson, who has been in charge of basketball at the school “for six or seven years”, said it has been an interesting journey thus far to grow the standard of play at Clifton.

He explained: “There are two things that have held Clifton basketball back. One is the size of the pool that we draw players from. The second thing is overcoming the perception that basketball is for those people who can’t play cricket, swim, or play waterpolo. I think we’re getting past that now.”

Clifton’s success in the Saint John’s Tournament was far from an overnight achievement, he added: “This year has been the culmination of a number of years of work. We’ve had nice stable structures in place in terms of coaching. It’s difficult to find coaches, because there are very few teachers who are coaches. You have to look externally for coaches. We’ve had a relatively stable structure and there are a couple of other things.

The team that performed so well in the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament before their departure for Johannesburg (Photo: Peter Farquharson)

“We’ve gone from one team per age group to four. From attending one tournament per year, we now attend five altogether. The under-14s go to Saint Andrew’s College, the under-16s were at Michaelhouse and Saint Stithian’s, the open team was at Saint John’s, and at the end of the year we’ll send the Stayers to Kearsney.”

The willingness to travel to play top teams in almost any sport anywhere in the country has been one of the prime drivers of sporting success at Clifton, helping the school to ascend at a rapid rate unlike anything seen from other schools of a comparable age.

Something else that has been of benefit to basketball at the school was the formation of Cobweb, an old boys/school boys club, which has entered a team in the Ethekweni Basketball League for the past two years. “A couple of the boys, like Jacques, play in that league. That means they’re getting exposed to the sport throughout the year. They’re playing at a tough level against men’s teams,” Farquharson said.

Mahanga admitted, though, that not all his goals had been achieved: “Last year, in the prefect’s application form, they asked everyone their goals for 2020 and my goal was to help make Clifton a top 10 team in South Africa. The only way to do that is by winning games.

“Unfortunately, this season we lost a lot of league games. In the Kearsney tournament, we came 10th, and in the Saint John’s tournament our goal was to make it to the quarter-finals. We were unfortunate to lose by three points against Michael Mount. They won the Saint John’s tournament two years ago.”

The point, though, is if you don’t attain your goal, you can still enjoy success.

“We played hard. We had the toughest pool. The two games we lost were to the finalists. We still made it out of the pool and we were unlucky not to make it into the quarters. I am sure that every coach out there is aware that Clifton basketball is rising,” Mahanga reckoned.

Like so many things at Clifton, where the idea of family is preached and lived, success comes from a holistic approach to all things. Peter Farquharson concluded: “There is an incredibly committed staff. The parental support is behind every endeavour at the school. Whether it’s the Chamber Choir or basketball, parental support is crucial, and it is there.”

Michaelhouse, Kearsney and Saint Charles remain steady powers at the top of KwaZulu-Natal schools’ basketball. Not long ago, DHS was the best in the country. Hilton College is strong, Maritzburg College is strong, Northwood is on the up, and Clifton now appears to have taken a seat at that table. The trick will be to sustain that success, but given their past record in other sports, why would one bet against them?