Armenia men’s basketball wins in Los Angeles

The Armenia men’s national basketball team recently had one of its more memorable weekends in Los Angeles.

Just a year prior, the men’s national team debuted the Armenia Basketball Classic — a two-game tournament against France in Los Angeles. This marked the first time the national team played a game in the United States, with both matches ending in losses for Armenia. Despite the results, the tournament was a symbol of more to come. Now, in the summer of 2024, Armenia played host to another mini-tournament that ended more favorably.

The Los Angeles International Basketball Cup tipped off on June 21 with Armenia, Guatemala and Ireland competing. Playing with aplomb, Armenia opened the tournament with a match against Guatemala. By halftime, the result of the match was certain. The halftime score was 45-26 in favor of Armenia with its captain, Andre Mkrtchyan Spight, leading the way with 17 first half points.

All 14 Armenia men’s basketball players on the roster were given game time by head coach Rex Kalamian. Kalamian just finished an NBA season as an assistant coach on the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that was favored to win the 2024 NBA championship before injuries to its star players Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard derailed the season.

When the final buzzer sounded at Crescenta Valley High School, Armenia walked away with a commanding 89-57 win. Spight led the way with 21 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals — a box score worthy of winning the SADA Player of the Game honor. Armenia’s two young rising stars, Anto Balian and Avand Dorian, also came to play. Balian finished the game with 18 points while Dorian chipped in 13 points. Both youngsters also combined to shoot 10/14 from the field.

Fast forward a couple of days to June 23, when Armenia laced up one more time to take on Ireland. Armenia, the 84th ranked FIBA team, squared off with the 88th ranked team in the world. The elements were against everyone, as the outside temperature neared 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but even the hot gym couldn’t compete with the ‘heat’ on display to finish the game. 

Early on, Armenia found itself in a hole. The home team was down 18-32 early in the second quarter, but this was followed by a quick 7-0 run capped off with a fastbreak layup from Spight and an Ireland timeout. After the timeout, 17-year-old phenom Balian scored five quick points. This all led to a 25-10 extended run, ending the half with Armenia holding a 43-42 edge.

Hundreds of people in the Crescenta Valley high school gymnasium were in for a thrilling second half. After the third quarter, both teams found themselves tied at 66. The game was to be decided in the fourth quarter, and it continued to be a tight back-and-forth affair.

Armenia secured a six point lead early in the fourth, until Ireland began hitting three-pointers more consistently. The score was 85-86 in favor of Ireland, and Armenia had to lock down on both ends to come out victorious.

University of Nebraska’s Connor Essegian came up big in the final minutes to get Armenia back in the lead. With Armenia down a point, Essegian scored five straight points, tilting the edge in favor of Armenia 90-86. Armenia seemed to have total control of the game, as Ireland inbounded and Spight stole the ball and found Gerry Blakes for a breakaway slam. There was pandemonium in the gym with the score at 92-86.

Ireland responded with a three-pointer of its own with 19 seconds left in the game. Then Ireland fouled Armenia, hoping for missed free throws with the score at 92-89. Of all people, Spight was fouled and sent to the charity stripe, only to miss both free throws. Despite that, Spight finished the game with 26 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.

Down three points with 18 seconds to go, Ireland went for a long two-pointer and was fouled by Essegian. Ireland’s bench thought the foul came on a three-point attempt, but the referee correctly ruled it a two-point attempt. Ireland sank both free throws, making it 92-91 with 14 seconds to go.

Armenia then inbounded the ball from the half court line. The referee signaled to Armenia that half court inbounds were not allowed; however, that message wasn’t read by everyone. A miscommunication between Blakes and Essegian led to a quick turnover, giving Ireland a chance to win the final possession of the game.

Ireland took two bites at the apple. The men in green were tied up by Gabriel Ajemian with less than four seconds to go. The possession arrow favored Ireland, and the away team got a clean look on the baseline that dinked off the rim and away from danger. The final buzzer sounded, and the celebrations ensued.

“It was a great finish honestly. We missed a couple of free throws. We could’ve put the game away, but our defense held up at the end of the game, and we were able to pull it out. I think it was a great game, exciting game for our fans,” head coach Kalamian told the Weekly.

Essegian’s clutch effort secured his best performance in an Armenia jersey, tallying 20 points and six rebounds.

“I don’t think you could ask for a better basketball [game]. An international finish to the game. It was back and forth, you had people scoring, you had bad calls, good calls, you had the crowd into it, and it had just a great atmosphere,” Essegian said.

During the game, the gym announcer took the time to honor Essegian’s grandfather, 92-year-old Chuck Essegian, who was in attendance and won a World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers back in 1959. Connor also spoke about what he’s learned when it comes to support from the Armenian community.

“Chuck’s a legend, and obviously Armenians stick together, and I’ve learned that very quickly. Just to see the support I’m getting these last two years being a part of this program has been unbelievable. I can’t ask for a better program,” Essegian added.

Despite being crowned the SADA Player of the Game, Spight was critical of his performance against Ireland. That didn’t stop a swarm of fans, young and old, from crowding him for a shot at getting his autograph and a memorable photo.

“It was a crazy game. I’m going to put the blame on myself first. I can’t shoot like that from the free throw line; that’s embarrassing. I don’t know what guard shoots like that from the free throw line, so I apologize. Other than that, I’m just happy we got the win in front of our crowd and our community, so that’s all that matters,” Spight said.

Kalamian echoed his love and appreciation for the Armenian community, which made up the overwhelming majority of fans in attendance throughout the weekend tournament.

“This is why we’re doing it. We’re doing it for the Diaspora. We’re doing it for people to come out and love this team, see this team, embrace this team, and as long as people keep coming out every year, we’ll just keep having this hopefully,” Kalamian said.

Armenia’s next tip-off won’t take place until November 24, 2024 against Austria in Yerevan. Then, the stakes will be higher, as Armenia will play its third of six FIBA Basketball World Cup 2027 European Pre-Qualifiers. Armenia is currently atop Group C with three points.

“Keep working and get better every day,” Spight said.

Jason Takhtadjian

Jason Takhtadjian

Jason Takhtadjian is a reporter, producer and weekend anchor at KCAU-TV in Sioux City, Iowa. Takhtadjian began college pursuing Mechanical Engineering with a focus on Aerospace until deciding to pursue a sports broadcast career after one semester at the University of Nevada - Las Vegas. While at UNLV, Takhtadjian worked on his own weekly radio show/podcast covering soccer and basketball, produced his own sports debate show, was part of the university’s weekly sports show “The Rebel Report” and was the play-by-play commentator for UNLV men’s and women’s soccer and basketball, to name a few. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Jason was graduating college and had to pivot to the world of general news to land a job. Three years after accepting a job in the middle of the United States with no Armenian community, Takhtadjian accepted a reporter position at KSEE in Fresno, California. The 26-year-old also worked as a contributor for Armenian Sports News, helping grow the page by thousands of followers in less than a year of work.

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