Lebanon labor past SKorea to open Asia Cup

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Wael Arakji showed up when it mattered most for a sluggish Lebanon Tuesday as the hosts eked out a 72-66 win against South Korea in their opening Asia Cup game in Zouk. The Riyadi point guard led the team with 22 points and was clutch at key moments as Lebanon repeatedly misfired against a vastly inferior opposition.

It proved immaterial in the end as the 22-year-old’s burgeoning scoring prowess coupled with some timely buckets from talisman Fadi al-Khatib ensured Lebanon eventually registered a wire-to-wire victory.

“Our first win of the tournament will give us a lot of motivation going forward, and hopefully we can perform well against New Zealand [Thursday],” Arakji said courtside following the game.

Indeed, Lebanon will have to greatly improve upon Tuesday’s showing if they are to remain perfect when they face a much stiffer test in the shape of New Zealand.

After exchanging baskets to open a rather listless first quarter, Ali Haidar settled the hosts’ nerves while demonstrating his lauded versatility on offense.

The Riyadi power forward first proved why he is so adept at spacing the floor despite standing at 2.01 meters, draining a deep 3-pointer before a driving lay-up followed on the next possession as Lebanon ended the first quarter with a tenuous 20-18 lead.

Lebanon’s lack of ball movement in the opening period saw South Korea barely break a sweat on defense, but, backed by Khatib, the Cedars finally kicked into gear come the second quarter.

The wily 37-year-old’s dribble penetration was beginning to open holes in the Korean defense, and taking full advantage, he delivered a pinpoint pass for Haidar, whose basket saw Lebanon’s lead swell to eight points.

Khatib then converted a pair of free throws as Lebanon closed the half with a 40-31 advantage.

With Korea’s struggles continuing in the third quarter, Arakji pounced, burning through the defense for a blurring lay-up to keep Lebanon in the ascendency at 42-31.

Both teams toiled mightily in the period – Lebanon finished with 14 points to Korea’s 10 – yet despite their inefficiency on offense Korea were able to cut into Lebanon’s lead.

But in keeping with proceedings, Arakji produced once more, hitting a midrange jumper before assisting to Jean Abdelnour on the next play to reopen an 11-point gap.

Khatib and Haidar then nailed consecutive 3-pointers to establish Lebanon’s largest lead at 14 points, before the quarter eventually ended with the hosts up 54-31.

With the finish line seemingly in sight, Lebanon threatened to implode at the start of the final period as an 11-0 run by Korea stunned the 8,000 partisan fans into silence.

But crucial baskets from Khatib and Arakji stopped the rot as Lebanon scored eight unanswered points to labor to a 72-66 win.

After the game Khatib admitted his side would have to “play a lot better” if they are to make a dint in the continental showpiece. “We should have won by a bigger margin, but the pressure of being first-time hosts led to ups and downs,” the veteran said after the game. “But a win is a win and we should learn from our mistakes.”

“Now we have a big game against New Zealand and we must be prepared,” he added.

In other games Tuesday New Zealand routed Kazakhstan 70-49, Australia comfortably dispatched Japan 84-68 and Chinese Taipie beat Hong Kong 77-62.
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