11th March, 2011
Two pairs of 8-feet imports from Nigeria are a big reason Grayson County College is back on the map of women’s junior college basketball in American basketball.
Uju Ugoka and Ijeoma Uchendu have helped the Lady Vikings attain heights not seen at the school since former coach Bill Brock took Grayson to two national tournaments, including a third-place finish in 2000.
“We’re more competitive now than when we first started,” Ugoka said. “Now we’re like family; we play together and pass the ball to each other. We do things together. So I think we’re like a family now.”
With Ugoka and Uchendu in tow, the Lady Vikings (30-3) will head to the NJCAA women’s national tournament in Salina, Kan. next week, ending an 11-year absence for the program. The tournament pairings and schedule will be announced today.
First-year Grayson coach Elena Lovato reconstructed the team when she arrived, keeping only one holdover from last year, Damequia Montgomery. The foundation for her project was her two Nigerian stars.
“A lot of schools are really interested in them, and they’ll be here for two years,” said Lovato, the NTJCAC and Region V coach of the year. “One (Ugoka) plays more of an inside game, the other (Uchendu) is very skilled at the perimeter spots. They’re two very different type players, but they’re both very effective within our offense. Of course, athleticism and length are big for defense, and they bring a lot to the table on that end as well.”
Ugoka, who was named both North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference and Region V player of the year, starts at power forward and shifts into the blocks when 6-foot-4 post Camille Redmon gets a break. But Lovato wants to develop Ugoka into a perimeter player.
“I envision Uju working on her game in the offseason, and turning her into a wing,” Lovato said. “We’re going to work on her ball handling and her touch from the outside. Hopefully we can put her on the perimeter a little bit more.”
Uchendu missed the first eight games of conference play with an injury, but quickly settled into the starting lineup once she returned. Uchendu, nicknamed “IJ,” earned honorable-mention all-conference honours.
Ugoka and Uchendu played together as teammates for four years before coming to Grayson. Both are members of the Nigerian women’s under-18 national team, which has secured a berth in the World Championships in Chile in June.
Speaking accented but perfect English — English is Nigeria’s official language — Uchendu said she’s adjusted well to the style of American basketball.
“I really have improved in the game,” she said. “Before, I was new to the system and kind of confused. Now, I’ve adapted and am improving each game. Every day there’s improvement in my game, and I’m happy about it.”
Ugoka said the main difference between international and American basketball is the skill level and strength of the players.
“Americans have skills, while we have strength,” Ugoka said. “We chose to put the two together.”
For Ugoka, coming to the U.S. was a bit of a culture shock. She likes the colder weather of North Texas in contrast with the tropical climate of her native land, but had a hard time adjusting to the food. Chicken and fish are just about the only meats she could tolerate at first.
“It’s very, very different, the way they cook food, the spices and everything,” Ugoka said. “There’s so much fat in the food here.”
The two Nigerians are able to attend college in the U.S. because of a scholarship from the Hope 4 Girls Basketball Foundation back home, which helps players wishing to come to America to study as well as play the sport.
At Grayson, both are solid students with grade-point averages better than 3.2. Neither has yet declared a major, but Uchendu is planning to study computer science, and Ugoka sociology.
The American game is giving both Ugoka and Uchendu an advantage that will help them when they return to their national team to play.
“The skills I get here, the ball-handling skills and the shooting skills, I can take back home,” Ugoka said. “The coaches there will be very happy.”