Two countries, one dream: A championship

AUSTIN MILLER | ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

For Ijeoma Uchendu, affectionately called “IJ” by many on campus, the road to Division I college basketball and the Big East conference has been a winding one. But despite being nearly 6,000 miles from home, she has found a home at Butler University.

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Uchendu played in 15 games for the Bulldogs last season. Photo by Amy Street

Originally from Lagos, Nigeria in West Africa, Uchendu did not start playing basketball until her senior year of high school.

A stellar senior prep season at Oshodi High School led to Uchendu being selected to represent Nigeria at the FIBA U18 African World Championship. From there, it was off to America to get an education and continue playing the game.

After a freshman season at Grayson College in which she averaged 10.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, Uchendu lost the next season due to injury and then transferred to perennial JUCO powerhouse Central Arizona College.

Central Arizona was coming off a string of five consecutive top-three.

“We had a reputation to protect,” Uchendu said. “We were expected to win the championship every year. But that’s still nothing compared to the Big East.”

Uchendu responded to the pressure by averaging 15.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game and leading Central Arizona to the JUCO national championship game. Her efforts earned her honorable mention All-American honors. She was ranked No. 3 nationally in Division I prospects by girlsbasketballreport.com.

She committed to Butler in June 2013, and has felt at home ever since.

“At first it was difficult, being so far from friends and family, but the people here made adjusting easier. My coaches and teammates have been great.”

One of those who have been helpful is head coach Kurt Godlevske. Godlevske was an assistant last season. Uchendu’s first on the Butler campus. He has watched her grow up-close and personal over the past year and a half.

“IJ is a great person to be around,” Godlevske said. “She’s bright and bubbly and she’s just transitioned so well.”

Uchendu saw action in 15 games last season, including a pair of starts. Her season average of 8.1 points per game was good for fourth on the team.

However, her role has increased this season. The 6-foot-1 senior is now a focal point of the team and looked to for steady leadership for the many new faces in the program. Godlevske knows this better than anyone.

“IJ’s going to be huge for us this year,” he said. “These girls look to her to calm everybody down and as someone they can rely on to get a bucket.

Her teammates seem to be responding well. Andriana Moore, a fellow JUCO transfer beginning her first season at Butler has especially taken to Uchendu.

“IJ is a great leader,” Moore said. “She’s helped me so much since I’ve gotten here and she has a great work ethic and we all look to match that.”

For Uchendu, nothing short of a championship will satisfy her hunger for success.

“My goal is definitely to go all the way,” Uchendu said. “We might have lost a lot of players from last season’s team but if your goal isn’t to win the championship then there isn’t any reason to come out on the floor.”

Godlevske said Uchendu possesses all the tools to be successful at this level.

“As far as her ability on the court, it’s unquestioned,” he said. “Her athletic ability allows her to do so many things out there. She can jump out of the gym. She’s got great range and we’re going to try to utilize that this season. And she’s got a step-back that’s almost unguardable for most girls.”

In her senior season, one thing is certain for Uchendu. She wants to do everything she can to leave her mark on the school and on the program.

“I want to be that senior that people talk about after I leave as someone who worked hard every single day and gave it everything. I want to teach these new players what it means to be a Big East athlete and how hard you have to work.”

BULLDOGS PREPARE FOR OPENING GAMES

The Bulldogs will begin the regular season on Friday night when they travel to Valparaiso University. Butler won last-season’s meeting 65-50. The Crusader’s finished last season with a 6-25 record.

Butler will then play its home opener Sunday when Indiana State University comes to Indianapolis. Indiana State won last-season’s matchup in Terre Haute 62-56, and finished the season 20-12 before they fell in the opening round of the WNIT. The Sycamores return all but two players from that team, which won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title.

Godlevske said this weekend will be instrumental in setting the foundation for the season, “I think the biggest thing is that it’s an opportunity for us to get a couple wins early on,” he said. It’s a chance to implement our full court man-to-man defense and see how well that’s going to work and also to look at our offensive execution.”

He also said that he the Bulldogs schedule is ordered so that it is each non-conference game prepares the team for conference play.

“Our schedule is set up so that each game is going to build toward the Big East,” he said, “and that’s going to be important for us.”

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