Last summer, Johnson & Wales University junior Matt Madoian had the opportunity to play in the FIBA U20 European championships for Armenia. He returned to play with the U20 team this summer as well as the men's national team.
A native of North Kingstown, R.I., Madoian is eligible to play for Armenia because his paternal grandfather, John Madoian, was born in Armenia. For the second year in a row, the team went 3-3 and finish 17th, but this year scored a major victory for the country.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been embroiled in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since the late 1980s. While a cease fire was reached in 1994, over the last few years there has been increased fighting, including a major clash in 2016.
Before the first basket was made, the two basketball teams came face-to-face as they were assigned to the same hotel in the host city of Oradea, Romania. Despite an effort by both countries, the two teams were forced to stay in the same hotel for the duration of the tournament. As fate would have it, the two teams ended up meeting on the basketball court during the classification round.
"That game meant more to our team than a gold medal," Madoian said. "Everything got tense from the time we found out we had to play them. We all felt that this game was for the people of Armenia and it would be a huge victory for those who have lost their lives and loved ones. I got goosebumps when they played the Armenian national anthem before the game because I know how much it meant to our country."
An already intense game was amped up even more as Armenia gave up a 15-point lead then rallied in the fourth quarter for an 82-80 victory. Madoian scored a team-high 20 points and handed out a game-high eight assists.
When the final buzzer sounded there was great joy on the part of the Armenian team. The head of the delegation jumped into the head coach's arms and Haykaz Grigorian, the lone player on the team who was born in Armenia, was crying and hugging his teammates. After the tournament, Grigorian will serve in the Armenian army and once again clash with Azerbaijan, but this time the stakes are much higher.
Of the 10-man roster, seven are from the United States, but have Armenian heritage. Many of them were on the team during the 2016 FIBA Championships. Madoian flew over to Armenia with Michael Hagopian, who is going into his junior year at Suffolk.
To get ready for the games, the team spent four weeks in training camp at Yerevan, Armenia. Madoian said language barrier caused some issues on the court, but away from basketball the team came together very quickly and have become life-long friends. One person Madoian particularly grew close to was Grigorian.
"Even though I don't speak Armenian and he doesn't speak much English, he was awesome to be around," Madoian said. "He's funny, energetic and just a caring guy that never fails to make you laugh. Coming from where Haykaz comes from, it felt like there was so much bottled up inside him and that being with us allowed him to let it out and make the trip memorable."
Selected as team captain, Madoian was third on the squad at 12.7 points per game – a five-point increase from a year ago - while averaging 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists. He was the tournament's top three-point shooter at 56 percent.
Madoian is currently in Armenia where he has joined the men's national team for the World Cup qualifying round. Armenia is currently 2-1 after its first round of games against Bosnia, Sweden and Slovakia and will play each country one more time during pool play.
When he returns to campus this fall, Madoian will try to lead the Wildcats back to the GNAC Championship. Last year he was fifth on the team at 7.6 ppg and shot 39.8 percent from behind the arc.