Coach Liz Mills to build Bangui's defense as team aims for BAL qualification

Liz Mills coached Ivory Coast's ABC Fighters in the 2023 edition of the Basketball Africa League, leading them to the quarterfinals. Julien Bacot/NBAE via Getty Images

Legendary basketball coach Liz Mills has joined the Central African Republic's (CAR's) Bangui Sporting Club for this year's Road to BAL qualifiers, and will focus on an area she feels is weak in African basketball: defense.

Mills, who is Australian but has worked in African men's hoops for decades, revealed that she will work alongside Jeff Sparrow, a coach with experience in the US and Australia and known as 'The Doctor of Defense,' having hand-picked him to join her at Bangui.

While the NBA has become a significantly higher-scoring league in the last two decades, Mills believes that other basketball nations have strengthened defensively, while Africa has followed the NBA trend towards offense.

"Every team in Africa, it's defense," Mills told ESPN when asked what she would focus on first, as they aim for the 2024 tournament.

"That is the number one thing, because as you know, we see it at the BAL, we see it at qualifiers, we see it at AfroBasket - every team is offense-heavy.

"We see that at the local level, where offense gets the priority, so defence is often lagging behind, so the first thing I do when I come in with defense is [tell them that] we're starting with defense.

"What's even better is that I'm going to be coaching with Jeff Sparrow from the US and he is a renowned defensive specialist. I've brought him in specifically. He's worked with NBA players, college players, worked with club teams in Australia, Puerto Rico and has been in the US, so I'm really excited to bring him on board.

"I've just handed the defense straight to him and said: 'Make us great,' and that's what we're going to be working on."

Bangui have already signed Evans Ganapamo, who plays for the CAR's national team but starred for Cape Town Tigers in their runs to the 2022 and 2023 quarter-finals, and played for the Milwaukee Bucks at last year's NBA Summer League.

"He brings two years of BAL experience. He's an elite scorer, but I think what you'll find here in Bangui is he's going to really thrive in a leadership role as well," Mills said.

"It also hits different when you're playing for your home country, I think. He's got a great relationship with Cyrille [Damango], the club president. We're all building towards a successful team and he's going to play a huge role in us being successful."

Ganapamo will line up alongside the likes of fellow CAR internationals Jimmy Djimrabaye and Max Kouguère as Bangui look to improve on last year's qualifiers. A lack of experience cost them as they fell three points short to Stade Malien in the West Division third-place playoff, which could have secured their place in the BAL.

Mills had been in talks with Bangui at that stage, but when they missed out on the BAL, she was snapped up by Ivory Coast's ABC Fighters for the 2023 BAL, where she led them to the quarter-finals.

While she enjoyed the experience with Abidjan club, the second team she led to the BAL quarter-finals after doing the same with Morocco's AS Salé the previous year, she is confident that this season, she has found her perfect match.

"It's all about creating the right environment to be successful and I think that starts at the top and when you've got a president and board who are doing things the right way [and] are creating an honest, trustworthy and transparent environment, that's how you build success," Mills said.

"I think I'm going to get this at Bangui. I really enjoyed my time working with the players in Ivory Coast. Look; we're going to probably face them in the second round of these qualifiers, so I'm really excited to go back to Abidjan potentially and see all those players again."

Despite Ganapamo's Summer League stint, there has not yet been an NBA player drafted from CAR, but Bangui-born Thierry Darlan will likely be the first next year.

"I think what we're seeing now is that the old guard who held the Central African Republic in that 4th, 5th, 6th position [in Africa] is now shifting over to a younger group of talented players. I'm excited to see that and I think Evans is really going to be leading the way as well and being the bridge as well between the veterans and the crop of young players coming through," Mills said.

"I think it all starts with Bangui qualifying for the BAL. I think that's going to be great momentum as you see these young players going to the NBA, going to college, and hopefully coming back home and playing for Bangui."

The Basketball Africa League airs on ESPN's channels in Africa.