In any American high school gym, you could find kids as young as six years old playing recreational basketball on the weekends.
Most rec leagues have all the fix-ins, such as uniforms and referees and coaches.
However, that wasn’t the experience for Vanderbilt Freshman center Blessing Ejiofor. She had never played a real basketball game with an officiating crew until she was a freshman in high school in Ebonyi, Nigeria.
“Usually I would go to the basketball court and watch people play,” she told The Vanderbilt Hustler. “And when they would leave, I would shoot free throws.”
Before her first basketball game, that was the extent of freshman center Blessing Ejiofor’s basketball experience.
“Basketball is huge in Nigeria, but here in America, you have all the facilities you need,” she said.
She mentioned how many Nigerian NBA and WNBA players are coming back to the country to build basketball courts, which is a welcome change from five years ago, when most players did not even return home to give back to the community.
Two of Ejiofor’s role models are Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, the Nigerian-American sisters who starred at Stanford before both were first overall picks in the WNBA draft. Both return to Nigeria almost every year to run basketball camps.
Although the basketball infrastructure in Nigeria has been improving, realized she could find greater opportunities elsewhere and moved to Paterson, New Jersey, for her sophomore year of high school.
She was initially supposed to attend a school in North Carolina, but was informed once she landed in the United States that there was no host family available to house her there.
“I was just excited to be in America,” Ejiofor said.
Adjusting to a new life in New Jersey was difficult. She called her mother daily, but still admitted that the transition was tough, as even minute cultural differences could sometimes cause friction.
Ejiofor said that in Nigeria, “when someone older is talking to you, you don’t look them straight in the eye.” However, she found that in the United States, that was considered to be a sign of disrespect.
She cited the higher quality education and vast opportunities in America as the reasons she worked through such differences and finished high school in Paterson.
When the time came to choose a university to continue her academic and athletic career, Ejiofor had many options. Duke, LSU, Syracuse, and Miami were among the 20th-ranked center’s many offers. Vanderbilt’s unmatched academics stood out to her and her father, and were a major factor in her signing with the Commodores.
“I always wanted to go to Vanderbilt even when I was back in Nigeria,” Ejiofor said. “I knew I was going to come here.”
Everything was looking up for Ejiofor, but an immigration snafu had other ideas.
In September 2016, she was forced to take a year-long leave of absence when her visa expired. Her visa needed to be renewed in Nigeria after every two years, but she was unable to go back and renew it in time.
Last year, she joined a gym and worked out four to five days a week to try to stay in shape in preparation for when she could rejoin the team.
“I wasn’t in great shape, but I wasn’t out of shape completely,” Ejiofor said.
Even though she couldn’t be with the team has head coach Stephanie White took over the program, she still felt like a Commodore already.
“They were really supportive,” she said of her teammates and coaches at Vanderbilt. “They did everything they could possibly do to get me back.”
Her coaches even wrote to the U.S. Embassy in an attempt to speed up the process of obtaining a new visa for her.
After a year of paperwork and waiting, Ejiofor was granted a visa to return to the United States, and she enrolled at Vanderbilt this year.
Being out of school for a year made the academic transition crazy and stressful according to Ejiofor. With the help of her academic counselor, assistant coach Carolyn Peck, and her teammates, she was able to handle the workload.
Like many Vanderbilt students, Blessing remarked that she had to learn how to study once she experienced the university’s rigorous academics.
On the court, Ejiofor has come off the bench in 15 games. Her 6’5” frame has been useful against taller SEC competition.
Coach White’s fast-paced style of play was the complete opposite of what Ejiofor had been accustomed to.
“Back home, they just wanted me to be in the paint,” she said. “But here [the coaches] try to make you go out of your comfort zone as a post player.”
Ejiofor is optimistic about this team, which she describes as resilient and passionate.
“We have a vision, and we are going to get there soon,” she said.
Vanderbilt fell to defending national champions and 10th-ranked South Carolina 95-82.
The game likely would have been more one-sided if All-American forward A’ja Wilson was not sidelined with an ankle sprain. Wilson is the two-time defending SEC Player of the Year and a leader for South Carolina.
Vanderbilt’s starting lineup of Rachel Bell, Cierra Walker, Chelsie Hall, Christa Reed, and Autumn Newby had no match for the Gamecocks’ height early in the night. Only Newby is over six feet tall, while South Carolina started three players taller than that.
South Carolina jumped out to an early 7-0 lead after the game’s first two minutes thanks to their superior rebounding. The Gamecocks finished the night with 31 rebounds, including 25 on defense.
With six minutes left in the first quarter, Coach Stephanie White subsistuted Kayla Overbeck and Kaleigh Clemons-Green into the game. Shortly after, Erin Whalen entered the game. This taller lineup fared better against a physical South Carolina defense, and Vanderbilt ended the first quarter down by only four points.
South Carolina’s defense was ferocious all night. The Gamecocks seemed to always be in the faces of Vanderbilt’s players and rarely let a shot go uncontested.
Whalen and Reed found success against that defense, though. In the first half, Whalen finished with 15 points on 75% shooting, including a perfect 3-for-3 on three-point shots. Reed added another 14 points.
Notably absent from the scoring sheet early in the game were Bell and Walker, who combined for just five points through the first two quarters. Walker found other ways to contribute, grabbing five rebounds and tallying three assists in the first half.
After two quarters of play, Vanderbilt trailed South Carolina 48-40.
The crowd was passionate throughout the game. After every controversial foul call, the fans screamed, and after every basket, they cheered as if it was the game-winning bucket.
White stuck with a taller lineup in the third quarter, and Whalen and Overbeck led an aspiring comeback. Each scored six points in the third quarter.
Early in the quarter, Vanderbilt’s defense got sloppy and started to give up easy open shots to South Carolina, but the Commodores tightened up as their offense began closing the gap.
With two minutes left in the third quarter, Vanderbilt was down by only two points.
Going into the fourth quarter, South Carolina led Vanderbilt 73-60. South Carolina forward Alexis Jennings sank a buzzer-beating three-point shot to close the third quarter and take some momentum away from the Commodores.
Still, everything seemed set up for a Commodore comeback heading into the fourth quarter. Calls started going Vanderbilt’s way, and Cierra Walker made two three-pointers early in the final quarter.
But South Carolina showed why it was a top-10 team even without its best player.
They went on a 19-7 run that started when they lead 64-62 with less than two minutes left in the third quarter and concluded not long after Overbeck fouled out four minutes into the fourth quarter.
Whalen ended the night with a career-high 25 points.
“She’s had some really good practices and came out and was aggressive,” White said of Whalen.
Reed finished with 23 points, and Walker scored 13 points to lead the Commodores.
“Christa’s been really solid,” White said. “She does so many things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.”
South Carolina’s leading scorers were Alexis Jennings with 27 points and LeLe Grissett who added 22 points. Both shot over 90% from the field and combined for 22 rebounds.
“They were absolutely unstoppable. They played like All-Americans,” White said of the duo.
One thing to note was that for the entirety of the game, White stood on the sideline coaching and encouraging her team, while South Carolina’s head coach Dawn Staley remained on the bench unless she was arguing a call to a referee. The Commodore bench replicated White’s passion by standing up and cheering after every basket. Their energy and intensity can make this team competitive against the mid-level SEC competition they will soon face.
Vanderbilt visits Alabama on Sunday at 2 PM.
Photos by Claire Barnett, Emily Goncalves, Madison Lindeman, Ziyi Liu, Hunter Long and Brent Szklaruk // The Vanderbilt Hustler
The Vanderbilt Commodores fell to No. 12 Missouri Tigers 81-70, dropping their SEC record to 0-4. It’s just the second time since the 1988-89 season that Vanderbilt has started SEC play 0-4 or worse.
Here are three thoughts from the latest Vanderblit defeat:
Saved by the Bell
Rachel Bell, who recently celebrated her 1,000th career point, once again had a solid game. The senior Bell supported the team with nine points in just 16 minutes of time on the floor. Cierra Walker made a solid contribution on both sides of the court, leading the team with 17 points and adding three assists and a steal. Walker was hot from long-range, going four for five on the night.
She hit a corner three-pointer and-one play in the first half that snapped the Commodores’ cold streak in the first quarter. She also hit a three-point shot in the final minutes of the game.
Shooters Gotta Shoot
In basketball, you need to make your shots if you want to have any shot at winning.
Vanderbilt did not do this well on Thursday.
Chelsie Hall and Erin Whalen went 0 for 3 from the field in the first quarter, and Kayla Overbeck missed an open layup to finish the second half. Even in the paint, the Commodores struggled as Missouri pulled ahead in the second half. The Commodores did well shooting from the perimeter in their thriller against Tennessee, but they were not able to create the same opportunities for themselves against Mizzou because of frequent turnovers, including four in the first half.
Head Coach Stephanie White said that Vanderbilt failed to capitalize on some of the momentum that built up on certain runs and that the team “kept looking too far ahead in the future” when it came to creating plays on offense.
Anchor Down, but D-Up
Missouri is highly-ranked, but Vanderbilt could have still done a better job limiting their scoring chances.
Vanderbilt allowed 25 points in the first quarter, 22 in the second, and 24 in the third, and just nine points in the final quarter. Granted, Mizzou pulled many of their starters in the final frame. Nevertheless, Vanderbilt’s defense incrementally improved over the course of the game and showed some promise for future games with rebounding. They grabbed a total of 30 rebounds throughout the game, including 10 offensive boards.
Vanderbilt has another opportunity to earn their first SEC win of the season on Monday when they take on Kentucky at 6:00 PM central time.
Vanderbilt fell to 12th-ranked Missouri 81-70 at home to begin SEC play 0-4.
This is just the second time since the 1988-1989 season that the Commodores have gone 0-4 or worse to start conference play. Last year, the squad went 0-7 to start the SEC slate.
For the seventh game in a row, the team allowed at least 80 points. Defense has been lacking all year, and this game was no exception. Missouri saw may open looks throughout the game.
Coach Stephanie White went small with her lineup tonight. Four guards: Rachel Bell, Cierra Walker, Chelsie Hall, and Christa Reed started with forward Autumn Newby.
The Commodores started slow against Missouri. The Tigers led by as many as 12 points in the first quarter.
Vanderbilt was plagued by foul trouble early. Standout freshman Newby picked up two fouls in the game’s first six minutes and spent much of the rest of the half on the bench.
After that, White shifted to a taller lineup with Kayla Overbeck and Erin Whalen.
Even after the shift, no one could stop Missouri guards Amber Smith and Jordan Chavis, who combined for 31 points in the first half.
Both sides had trouble maintaining possession. In the first half, Missouri committed 11 turnovers and Vanderbilt gave the ball away seven times.
Vanderbilt began the second half down 48-37.
About halfway through the third quarter, Overbeck picked up her third foul of the night and was subbed out for Blessing Ejiofor to preserve a taller lineup.
Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham, who was named to the All-American Honorable Mention team last year, was held scoreless for the game’s first 30 minutes before sinking a three-pointer. Cunningham came into Memorial Gym averaging 18.8 points per game, but was held to just five points.
The Commodores were outscored 24-10 in the third, as Missouri continued to pull away, aided by Jordan Frerick’s eight points.
Player of the Game Cierra Walker continued her recent hot streak by going 4-5 from three-point range and scoring a total of 17 points.
“She’s just really solid and she’s shooting the ball really well,” White said of Walker.
Erin Whalen added 15 points and Kayla Overbeck tacked on another 12 in her return from a concussion.
White praised Overbeck’s effort and said, “she was very efficient” when she entered the game. Overbeck went shot 100% on her four attempts.
Vanderbilt faces Kentucky next on Monday, January 15th at Memorial Gym at 6 PM.