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.

The first question, was, unusually, what is going right? That’s when, unusually again, rugby made its way into a story about basketball success!

“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.”

Michaelhouse edge Maritzburg College in basketball thriller

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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!

To be a winning team, to be the best, it takes more than talent, it takes a special connection between the players and a relentless drive to succeed.

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.”