Uju Ugoka turning hope into reality

Uju Ugoka has started every game this season for Virginia Tech and is leading the Hokies in both point and rebounds. Courtesy Virginia Tech

Rebounding and passing.

That's all Uju Ugoka knew about the game of basketball when she attended her first Hope 4 Girls Africa basketball camp in West Africa. Run by Mobolaji Akiode, a former standout women's basketball player at Fordham University and a member of the Nigerian national teams that competed in the Summer Olympics in 2000 and 2004, the camps were an opportunity for young women to develop their skills and, possibly, earn a chance for an even bigger opportunity.

"When I heard about the camp, I was so excited because it was going to open an opportunity for me to follow my dream [of playing basketball in college in the United States]," Ugoka said. "I went to the camp and I worked as hard as I could to impress the scouts, and I learned a lot."

Four years later, Hope 4 Girls has given Ugoka an opportunity to accomplish exactly what Akiode intended when she started the program to give back to young women in Africa.

After stops at Grayson County College in Denison, Texas, and at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Fla., Ugoka's career has taken off as a member of the Virginia Tech women's basketball team. Through 16 games, Ugoka is leading Virginia Tech (10-6, 0-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) in scoring (19.4 points per game), rebounding (10.3 per game), and field-goal percentage (53.9 percent). The 6-foot-1 forward from Lagos, Nigeria, has either led or tied for the team lead in scoring in 12 of the Hokies' games. She had a career-high 32 points in a loss at Indiana on Dec. 4.

"Basketball means a lot for me," said Ugoka, who is the fifth of eight children (five sisters, two brothers). "I love the game of basketball, and I want to help my family through playing basketball. I want to use the game of basketball to try to play professionally so I can make money and help them in any way I can."

Ugoka's dreams of playing professionally are taking shape. She earned first-team NJCAA All-America honors as a freshman at Grayson County College, but she transferred after that school disbanded its basketball programs after the 2010-11 season. As a sophomore, she averaged 17 points and nine rebounds at Gulf Coast State College, earning conference player of the year honors and first-team NJCAA All-America honors.

Last season, Ugoka played in 17 games (10 starts) and was second on the team in scoring (12.5 ppg) and first in rebounding (8.5). But Virginia Tech coach Dennis Wolff said Ugoka's game has improved significantly in the past year.

"She really has been a self-motivated and terrific kid," said Wolff, a longtime men's basketball coach at Boston University. "I think there is more of a sense of urgency to me."

Wolff said Ugoka has used her inner drive and the responsibility she feels to care for her family to become a player who can use her strength and shooting ability to overcome double teams and the fact she is undersized for a power forward.

"It has just been by effort," Wolff said, explaining how Ugoka's game has evolved. "It has been just by coming into the gym on her own. It started when she came back from Nigeria at the end of August [last year], and it has been non-stop."

Ugoka's improvement as a basketball player and desire to give back are two ways she resembles her benefactor. Akiode was a standout at Fordham from 1999-2003. She finished her career ranked in the top 10 all-time in scoring and rebounding with 1,167 points and 554 rebounds. The epiphany she had in creating Hope 4 Girls, a nonprofit organization based in the United States, was to give young women in Africa an opportunity through basketball and education. Now more than four years old, Hope 4 Girls continues to give basketball instruction and to offer life lessons.

"She was a ball of energy and talented and funny," Akiode said of her first impressions of Ugoka at the camp in 2009. "She just stood out. There were a ton of kids, so it is hard to remember everyone because there were 60-70 kids at once, but I just remember her making me laugh and playing like a crazy person on the court."

A sociology major with a 3.5 GPA, Ugoka said she would like to stay in the United States and return to Nigeria to continue to help her family. In addition to playing professional basketball, Ugoka said she wants to work as a scouting agent. She said she also would like to get involved in efforts like Akiode's that help provide young women and men with opportunities to make better lives for themselves, their families and their communities.

Even though Ugoka acknowledges it has been a sacrifice being away from her family for so long, she said she has learned so much in her journey from Texas to Florida to Virginia.

"I have had unbelievable coaches who have really pushed me to work hard and to realize my potential and to achieve my dreams," Ugoka said. "I never knew I had that much talent for people to see. Coming here really paved the way for me to express myself in basketball and education. It is hard to imagine what I have accomplished. I still can't believe I have accomplished all of this stuff in less than four years."

Wolff hasn't been surprised by everything Ugoka has done in her two years at Virginia Tech. After an up-and-down junior season in which Ugoka never was 100 percent healthy, Wolf said Ugoka hasn't allowed the weight of trying to make a better life slow her down. Instead, the 20-year-old has blossomed into one of the ACC's top players. She entered the second half of the season as one of only three players in the league averaging a double-double.

"She came here with that drive," Wolff said. "It is all tied together in her wanting to be successful. If it means studying longer for a test, she will do it. If it means trying to improve her passing and her ballhandling, she will do whatever she needs to do to get better."

Without Akiode, Ugoka said she probably still would be in Nigeria trying to earn a spot on that country's national team and "trying to survive any way I can." Thanks to Hope 4 Girls, Ugoka has found a different road with unlimited possibilities that gives her a chance to find her way home and give back. She also has learned there is a lot more to basketball than rebounding and passing.

"My family motivates me," Ugoka said. "Being an African, we always work hard in everything we do. I feel the responsibility in a way because I know the situation back home and what my people and parents all need, so there is an obligation to work as hard as I can."